God Is Green as Well as Good: How Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai Changed the World One Tree at a Time

Wangari Maathai (Martin Rowe, 2002, provided by Crown Publishing)

Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of The Green Belt Movement, Yale Club, New York City. (Martin Rowe. Copyright, 2002. Photo provided courtesy of The Crown Publishing Group.)

The late Wangari Maathai loved trees almost as much as she did God and her fellow human beings. In 2004, her name was given its own page in the history of our world when she became a Nobel Laureate – the first woman from Africa to ever be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Officially recognized “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace,” Maathai caught the eyes of Nobel Committee members because she created what eventually became known as The Green Belt Movement.

She began to attract the world’s notice by inspiring Kenyan women to plant trees in 1977 as a means of reversing the severe crop damage wrought by deforestation and chronic water shortages. She and her fellow Kenyans did so with such enthusiasm and success that the green belt movement spread to other nations across Africa and the globe.

Ultimately, more than 45 million trees were planted as a result of this one woman’s passion and brilliance. Let that sink in for a minute.

Forty-five million trees (45,000,000).

One woman.

A Force of Nature

Born in Nyeri, Kenya in 1940, Wangari Maathai grew up to become the first woman from East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate in biology, as well as the first female professor ever in her beloved country. By the time of her death in 2011, she had also become a genuine hero to the worldwide modern environmental and women’s rights movements.

Beginning with a grassroots program of Civic and Environmental Education (CEE) in 1977, Dr. Maathai and her Green Belt Movement (GBM) inspired thousands of Kenyans to reconnect spiritually and socially with their natural world. Her programs taught men, women and children about the relationship between environmental degradation and poverty, spurring them to right action on issues from resource management to respect for the rights of women and children.

As a result, this one woman and her small army of deeply spiritual volunteers helped to restore the forest cover in Kenya’s five most critical water catchment areas – areas that still impact the availability of water for more than 90 percent of that country’s population – and she also motivated her nation to engage in capacity building through Women for Change, an initiative designed to provide women and girls with the resources and training necessary to tackle poverty, food insecurity and HIV/AIDS.

A publicly elected member of Kenya’s Parliament from 2002 to 2007, Dr. Maathai served as Kenya’s deputy minister for the Environment and Natural Resources from 2003 to 2007, and was also appointed as a United Nations Messenger of Peace by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in 2009.

Replenishing the Earth by Wangari Maathai (cover, copyright 2010, photo provided byThe Crown Publishing Group).

Replenishing the Earth by Wangari Maathai (cover, copyright 2010, photo provided byThe Crown Publishing Group).

In her book Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, Maathai challenged us all to reexamine the way in which we look at nature.

“For me, there’s plenty of evidence in the sacred scriptures to argue that God, or what I might call the Source, has given us everything we need to live a good life, but that because of greed, selfishness, irresponsibility, passivity, or ignorance we bring about suffering on ourselves,” wrote Maathai.

“When the Green Belt Movement conducts its civic and environmental seminars, we emphasize the importance of communities taking responsibility for their actions and mobilizing to address their local needs. This message, of course, is applicable anywhere, not just in Africa, and not just among the poor. We all need to work hard to make a difference in our neighborhoods, regions, and countries, and in the world as a whole. That means making sure we work hard, collaborate with each other, and make ourselves better agents to change.”

Maathai is still capable of inspiring us, even now, to search our souls for what we were taught as children by our parents, teachers and spiritual leaders – to search for that whispering voice we know in our hearts to be real – a voice that sets our spirits soaring at the sight of majestic mountains, clear bubbling streams and the sheltering branches of old growth trees.

Maathai’s book is the quintessential “pebble in a shoe,” making us feel ill at ease enough that we might just think twice about our modern day choices – prompting us to think hard about whether or not we will use paper, plastic or reusable grocery tote bags, bottled versus tap water, or recyclable food storage instead of Styrofoam containers, and reminding each of us that we have it within ourselves to effect positive change which impacts more than just our own backyards.

“It’s fair to ask what spiritual resources could be used to gather the courage and strength to take a stand against what one sees as wrong. Perhaps it is attaining a level of consciousness that does not allow one to feel peace with oneself if something is being done that seems unjust,” wrote Maathai. “That same awareness can give you a resolve so that you are not overwhelmed. Instead, you feel empowered to take action and gradually it becomes possible to figure out what to do.”

Green Spirituality Resources

I Will Be a Hummingbird (video: interview with Wangari Maathai excerpted from Dirt! The Movie)

Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (Doubleday Religion, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group; ISBN: 978-0-307-59114-208)

The Green Belt Movement

Gaia Philosophy, Temple of the Goddess

Introduction to Ecofeminism, Karen J. Warren, Ph.D., former professor and chair of philosophy Macalaster College

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