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Wangari Maathai Remembered

September 25, 2012 • Daily Email Recap

The following story came to PMC from Glendora Meikle, who holds a M.A. in Media & International Conflict from the University College, Dublin.

Wangari Maathai Remembered (4/1/1940 – 9/25/2011)

One year ago, Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai passed away in Nairobi, after undergoing treatment for cancer. Professor Maathai was the 2004 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize – the first African woman to earn the honor – for her contributions to “sustainable development, democracy and peace.” She is the founder of the Green Belt Movement, which continues to implement her vision. Below, Glendora Meikle, who worked with her from 2005 to 2007, remembers Professor Maathai.

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I was 22, and greener than an emerald, when I first met Wangari Maathai. Never having shared a room with a real, live Nobel Peace Laureate before, I was all butterflies. The fact that I was preparing to chauffeur her through the cornfields of Iowa to a speaking engagement in Minnesota directly after we exchanged our first hellos wasn’t easing my New York pedestrian mind, either.

I needn’t have worried.

Of her numerous and well-documented attributes, her warmth was the first to strike me. To this day I’ve not encountered a more genuine smile than the one Professor Maathai greeted me with at the airport.

Fortunately, 18-hour flights affect Nobel prize winners just as they do regular people, and though her assistant and I got absurdly turned around amidst the corn husks, Professor Maathai dozed soundly in the back seat. It was my first job out of school, and I was terrified of making a mistake. The company I worked for, the Harry Walker Agency, coordinated speaking schedules for many of the world’s most distinguished leaders, humanitarians and thinkers, and since her profile had increased considerably since her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, Professor Maathai was our newest client. Fittingly, they gave her logistics duties to their newest employee. In a way, we were learning the ins and outs of the speaking circuit together.

Given my tenuous grasp on the boundaries of my position, I was focused on professionalism: shield the speaker from unnecessary hassles, avoid media bombardments unless agreed to in advance, and keep the speaker in quiet, private spaces as often as possible so as to prevent spontaneous celebrity meet-and-greet scenarios. One can imagine, then, my alarm when, upon sneaking through the side entrance of the hall she was to speak in, Professor Maathai was spotted by a fellow Kenyan who began ululating with joy, attracting not only numerous head swivels but more Kenyans by the dozen. (Little-known fact: Minnesota is home to a significant Kenyan diaspora.) Though not one person was looking my way, my instinct was to make a “shhh!” motion and smuggle her into the green room, away from all the commotion (which was not on the minute-by-minute itinerary I had created). But as I stood powerlessly by and watched her clasp hands with her countrymen, giving everyone a personal hello, her assistant said to me, “Don’t worry. They just want to show her they love her. They’re so proud. It makes her very happy.” It was clear that was the truth, and I pushed through my first brush with unforeseen scheduling hiccups. She didn’t need me to protect her from an outpouring of affection. We adapted.

We fell into a comfortable routine that first year, and Professor Maathai captivated audiences around the globe. She never seemed to mind that many of the ceremonies she attended required her to get down on her knees and plant a tree. Her hands got dirty, her beautifully coordinated outfits were left with smudges on the skirt, and it certainly wasn’t “dignified” for someone of her prestige. But it’s what she did – the environment was her passion, and nothing about her message was for show.

Most often she chose to close her remarks with a parable we deemed “the hummingbird story.” A fire breaks out in the middle of the forest, and all the animal inhabitants gather to watch, helpless, as their home is destroyed. But one tiny hummingbird sees what is happening and flies to the nearest river. It takes a mouthful of water in its beak, flits back to the fire, and drops it on the flames. It repeats this effort, flying back and forth, back and forth, one drop of water in its beak each time (and here, Professor Maathai became very animated, flapping her hands like tiny wings, demonstrating the urgency of the hummingbird). The other animals say to the hummingbird, “What are you doing? You are too little – you can’t possibly put out these flames all by yourself.” And the hummingbird, pausing only for a moment, replies, “I am doing the best I can.”

Professor Maathai challenged her listeners to be the hummingbird. And it truly was impossible to hear her words of common sense and peaceful rebellion and not be inspired. Many people do tremendous work to keep our planet from wilting; far fewer are able to use their own struggles and experiences to push others into action. Professor Maathai had the authenticity of her life’s work and that rare, intangible charisma that enabled her to fall into the latter category.

Wangari Maathai saw a problem: the degradation of the earth’s resources and the conflicts that arise due to destruction of the land. From a nearly infinite number of potential ways to address the issue, she chose to start planting trees. She involved the women of her community, and soon the women of communities the world over. Her legacy lives on in Uhuru Park, and in all the little seedlings that are growing tonight, from Tokyo to Toronto, because of her leadership.

Glendora Meikle is completing her master’s degree in Media & International Conflict at University College Dublin’s Clinton Institute. She has worked in communications and international affairs for several years, most recently at United Nations Headquarters in New York. Twitter: @gmeiks


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