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In Memoriam: Wangari Maathai

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Wangari Maathai started a green movement in Africa by planting a single tree. Recently, at 71, she lost her battle with cancer. Read our 2004 story about her environmental work.

Wangari Maathai

On the farm in Kenya where Wangari Maathai grew up, God was easy to find. “My mother told me God abounded. He lived in the fig trees and in the vines that clung to the riverbanks,” Wangari says. “He was in the soil that gave us our food and in the rain that kept the soil moist. My mother taught me to love nature because nature was a manifestation of God.” Wangari attended missionary schools. There she learned the biblical analogue to what her mother taught her: stewardship.

In 1960 Wangari won a Kennedy scholarship to study in America. She earned a master’s in biology from the University of Pittsburgh, then became the first woman from Kenya ever to earn a Ph.D.

Wangari returned to her country in 1966 and was shocked by what she found. The forests had been cut down for lumber. Heavy rains washed most of the good soil away, since there was no longer vegetation to protect it. Rivers were silt-choked, the soil leached of nutrients. Nothing grew and nothing bloomed anymore.

Wangari realized there were scientific principles behind the spiritual truths her mother had taught her. Wild fig trees have deep roots that pierce the bedrock, allowing moisture to reach the surface. Plants naturally purify the rivers and anchor soil to the banks. The wisdom that had protected these trees and plants was being forgotten. So was the stewardship of the Bible that Wangari had learned in the missionary schools.

Worst was what had happened to Kenya’s most precious resource—people. Men abandoned farms for jobs in overcrowded cities, leaving wives and children behind. Trees in the countryside were so scarce that women walked miles to gather a few sticks for a fire—the center of village life.

“There were so many problems,” Wangari says. “I didn’t know where to start, except to pray.” Then she remembered what the missionaries said: Every forest begins with a single seed.

She planted a tree. Then another. Then hundreds. In 1977 she founded a group called the Green Belt Movement, which promotes tree planting in rural areas and trains farmers in eco-friendly farming methods. Since the group started, it has planted some 20 million trees in Kenya and has changed the way Kenyans look at their environment. In 2003, Wangari published a history of the group.

“When you plant a tree and see it grow, something happens to you,” she says. “You love it and want to protect it. My mother taught me to see God in nature. Our protecting nature is God’s will.”

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