One of my heroes died this week. Wangari Maathai was the unusual combination of social activism and humility. She had the courage to get a college degree when few Kenyan women were going to school, received her doctorate in the US, then faced discrimination as a female professor in her home country.
Maathai dedicated her life to making the lives of peasant farmwomen better by the simple act of planting trees. This brought women together in collective action that challenged the male establishment. Maathai found herself involved with self-help women’s organizations around the world and it was on a visit of hers to New York where she met with Lisle Burn, Leader of the Brooklyn Ethical Culture Society, who herself was working with women in Haiti and my wife and I had a chance to meet her personally. Several years later we visited her Greenbelt headquarters in Kenya. Not surprisingly, she wasn’t there but out in the countryside getting her hands dirty in the soil planting trees.
Maathai confronted the government head-on when it planned to build a skyscraper in a downtown Nairobi park. She led women in an extended sit-in that the government broke-up with teargas and bulldozers. Once again she was arrested, but this time the bloody scene was broadcast on CNN and the government soon released her.
Maathai was often harassed, detained and beaten by the government. She was called a mad woman by the president and a hero around the world. She continued to organize groups to plant trees, trees and more trees, empowering women along the way, saving the environment and challenging power.
She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and finally accepted as a national treasure. That fame didn’t translate into a successful political career. She was elected, then turned out of office, mainly because she supported the removal of squatters from nearby forests.
When Lyn and I met Maathai, she was warm, genuine, soft-spoken and strong, This was charisma at its best, a force turned outward for the good of humankind. For nm she was a model of how the world can be changed for the better through dedication to what may seem like a small thing—plant a tree—and still remain nothing more than an ordinary person.