Sometimes those of us who live in western nations can take freedom for granted. That has been said many times. But when you can put a personal face on an act of courage, the story can have deep meaning. There are parts of the world today, where speaking truth to power is dangerous. When you run up against the establishment, truth can be a threat that must be neutralized. Speaking it can cause enemies with power to rise up against you. They can try to destroy you, and to silence your voice. In some parts of the world, it can even cost you your life.
In spite of the risks, every so often a voice emerges and reminds us all that we can be powerful – even as individuals. They can, by their own actions, set a standard of behavior that is so impressive; it seems unimaginable to think we can match it.
Wangari Maathai is one such voice. She was born in rural Kenya, and became an environmentalist, feminist, politician, professor, gadfly, trouble maker, and conscience to her country’s political leaders. There was a time in her life, she paid women on the brink of despair a few shillings to plant trees. She was to become the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace prize. She died this month of cancer at 71. Her memory is worth honoring. (to read more her obituary can be found in the New York Times.)
Born in 1940, in a rural part of Kenya, she was a stellar student won a scholarship enabling her study in the United States and ultimately earned a Doctorate in veterinary anatomy. She could have stayed in academia, or gone in to private practice, but her destiny led her back home to do something about some of the many problems facing her fellow countrymen. Her practice was in the slums of Nairobi or on the muddy hillsides in central Kenya.
She was not a strong, angry, or militaristic person. Her causes were the environment, the well-being of women, and having compassion for those in hopeless poverty. She founded her Green Belt Movement which planted trees across Kenya (not just as a symbolic gesture) but to also fight erosion and to create fuel (firewood) and jobs for women. Seems hardly worthy of a Nobel Prize . . . or does it?
She was sort of pleased to be a thorn in the side of Kenya’s former president, Daniel Arap Moi, and tried to serve in Parliament (seeking to bring about change from the inside). She believed that environmental degradation and poverty were inextricably linked in her nation. She fought against what she believed were short-sighted development policies of her government. Her movement was ultimately labeled as “subversive” by her political enemies. After being pushed out of government she was tear-gassed and beaten unconscious and jailed by the police during a political protest against the excesses of Kenya’s well-entrenched political class. She was forced into exile due to her outspokenness, and lived away from her home for many years.
Yet, her Green Belt Movement has planted over 30 million trees in Africa and helped nearly 900,000 women, according to a report by the United Nations said. Seems hardly worthy of a Nobel Prize . . . or does it?
The Nobel committee hailed her for taking “a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular” and serving “as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights.”
Fellow Nobel winner Al Gore said “Wangari overcame incredible obstacles to devote her life to service — service to her children, to her constituents, to the women, and indeed all the people of Kenya — and to the world as a whole.”
During her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Mrs. Maathai said the inspiration for her work came from growing up in rural Kenya. She reminisced about a stream running next to her home (that same stream has since dried up) and drinking fresh, clear water.
“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other,” she said.
She was known not only for her courage and energy, but for promoting a message of hope and optimism to the rest of us who can often be overwhelmed by the immensity of our challenges. See for yourself in this brief video clip:
One recent NY Times article recounted comments from a defense of her prize from Anna and Frances Moore Lappé. Here is a small segment:
“Maathai’s genius is in recognizing the interrelation of local and global problems, and the fact that they can only be addressed when citizens find the voice and courage to act. Maathai saw in the Green Belt Movement both a good in itself, and a way in which women could discover they were not powerless in the face of autocratic husbands, village chiefs and a ruthless president. Through creating their own tree nurseries – at least 6,000 throughout Kenya – and planting trees, women began to control the supply of their own firewood, an enormous power shift that also freed up time for other pursuits.”
We all define courage in our own way. Ms. Maathai seemed to show us how she could make a difference simply by trying to live her life the best that she could, and remind us to ask whether or not we are doing the same.