The Tree Lady: Wangari Maathai

by Darcy Sinclair

The headlines nowadays are laughable. Even in the midst of an economic crisis, a still-raging war in Iraq, and a new presidential administration, the American mentality is wrapped around its morbid obsession with celebrities. Incessant dwelling on Sarah Palin, Lindsey Lohan, and Eminem, just to name a few. Of course I've been afflicted by bizarre fascination with household names, too. What I find most unfortunate, is our lack of interest in individuals such as Wangari Maathai. We ask ourselves questions such as, "Would Palin win a suit against Eminem's latest song if she...?" rather than "How was Maathai able to garner such a powerful community for her dream against such odds?" Here's her story:

When you think about environmentalists, you picture lofty scientists working on a global scale. Wangari Maathai is focused on her local environment, about what women need to live in Kenya. What started as simply planting a few trees in her backyard became a holistic, passionate fight for democracy and equality. Planting trees is about empowering women.

Wangari Maathai planted her first tree on June 5th, 1977, World Environmental Day. Gardening, however simple or ornate, is sacred. Kenyan Junes are hot and humid, the tail end of a long rainy season. Maathai might have been wearing a colorful, cotton kitenge as she carried a tree into her yard. Perhaps she hummed an old Kikuyu tune as she removed the tree from its pot and prepared to place it in the ground. Little did Maathai know that one day she would she would be divorced, brutally beaten, and imprisoned, planting a tree as she did on that sticky day in June. While she would change millions of lives for the better, millions would seek to drag her down.

Whatever Maathai thought as she planted that tree, it quickly became a passion to which she dedicated her body and soul. Oppressive political leaders, culturally-ingrained sexism, and life-threatening violence weren't enough to stop her from becoming a member of parliament, empowering women around the globe, and planting more than 30 million trees in Kenya. The same year that she planted her first tree, Maathai formed the Green Belt Movement, a non-profit, non-governmental organization that promotes conservation of the environment, women's rights, culture, and quality of life. Wangari made something both simple and sacred, planting a tree, into a celebration that she shared with her community, her country, and the world.

If I were to spend a day with Maathai as part of the book we are writing, I would...

- Plant a tree. You simply cannot spend time with "The Tree Lady" and not want to experience first-hand the center of it all!

- I'm especially curious to see how her duties as part of Kenya's government mingle with her non-governmental roles. Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife and a member of Kenya's parliament, I wonder what kinds of activities would be a part of Maathai's average day; beyond accepting prestigious awards, supervising her organization, and planting trees.

- If I were to watch Maathai speak, I would love to stay and watch her conversations with the audience afterward. After my mom gives a speech, she almost always spends time talking to individual members of the audience. Signing books and postcards, laughing again over the funnier tidbits of the speech, and exchanging hugs; so many emotions are shared even in the briefest encounters. I want to see how people react to her.

What would you want to do if you could follow Wangari Maathai around for a day? We'd love to know what you think... it could end up in our book!