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Wangari Maathai and the Real Work of Hope

We join millions grieving for Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai. She altered the course of our lives, and our one solace is in knowing that she has changed — and will continue to change — the lives of millions of others. She taught us about the work of hope.In the early 1970s, Wangari — the first woman PhD in biological sciences in East Africa — saw the Sahara desert creeping south into Kenya. In just one century, the country’s forests had shrunk to less than five percent of what they once were. Wangari knew that Kenya’s entire ecosystem was threatened, with devastating results.

So Wangari decided to take action. On Earth Day 1977, she planted seven trees to honor seven women leaders in her country, and with that act, launched the Green Belt Movement. When she began, the Kenyan forestry service, established under the British, scoffed at her. “What? Untrained village woman planting trees to reverse the encroaching desert? Oh no, that takes trained foresters!”

“The foresters were not amused,” Wangari told us, with her signature grin, when we met her in Kenya to learn about her movement firsthand in 2000. “I told them, ‘We need millions of trees and you foresters are too few, you’ll never produce them. So you need to make everyone foresters.’ I call the women of the Green Belt Movement foresters without diplomas.”

In the intervening decades, the Movement’s tree-planting village women turned Wangari’s seven trees into 45 million across the country. And the Movement’s “kitchen garden” campaign brought greater food security, too. “When you go home,” village elder Lea Kisomo, told us, looking straight into our eyes, “tell your people that we Kamba people had lost our culture, especially our food security, but now we are going to regain it. What we’ve lost, we’re getting back.”

But as we talked with Green Belt Movement members in their homes, we realized that our first impressions of Wangari’s real impact was wrong — or not wrong, exactly, but not big enough: Yes, the Green Belt Movement was about reforestation, but as Wangari engaged further in the work, she realized that in order to protect forests, a transformation was needed in the minds of the members: In this way, the true battle is not about the environment, as such; the real battle takes place inside, when “ordinary people” make that internal shift — as terrifying as it might be — to realize their power.

“We broke the code,” Wangari told us as we sat with her in a Green Belt Movement guesthouse. “We told the women: ‘Use the methods you know, and if you don’t know, invent.’ They would use broken pots. They would put the soil and seeds there and watch as they germinate. If they germinate, well and good; if not, try again.”

In other words, she told the women to trust themselves.

As the result of her work, tens of thousands of village women who had been taught to defer to chiefs, husbands, colonial authorities, multinational corporate marketers, and to disparage their own traditions and common sense gained courage. They learned to say: We have the solutions. We can take responsibility. We can transform our villages and our nation — and our world.

Saying good-bye to Wangari as we left Kenya in 2000, we were inspired, but worried: her movement’s resources were shaky, a big international donor had just pulled out and she and her leadership were under threat from government retaliation. Shortly after we returned home, Wangari was jailed — not for the first time — for her resistance to illegal logging.

We could never have imagined, let alone predicted, the changes that just a few years would bring: In 2002, Wangari swept into Parliament, out-polling her nearest opponent 50 to 1. Soon, she was named Deputy Minister of the Environment, and women danced for joy in the streets of Nairobi. And then, in 2004, we heard the remarkable news: Wangari had been honored with the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Kenya we met many women wearing the Green Belt Movement’s simple t-shirt adorned with the slogan: “As for me, I’ve made a choice.” So simple, yet so powerful, are those words: To create the world we want, Wangari always embodied, we must choose to act, even if there is no evidence assuring success — even if we face ridicule, oppression, and loss. Hope, she taught us, is not for wimps. It is not what we find in evidence, it is what we become in action.

And so, as we grieve along with countless others around the planet, we remember these simple words of the Movement and what the planet calls us to do: Not to be assured that we will succeed, but that as Wangari did with those seven trees in 1977 — and for the rest of her life — that we make the simple, profound choice to act.

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