I first heard of Wangari Maathai on Speaking of Faith
It is with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Professor Wangari Maathai. On behalf of all Americans, Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to Professor Maathai’s family and the people of Kenya at this difficult time. The world mourns with you and celebrates the extraordinary life of this remarkable woman who devoted her life to peacefully protecting what she called “our common home and future.” The work of the Greenbelt Movement stands as a testament to the power of grassroots organizing, proof that one person’s simple idea—that a community should come together to plant trees—can make a difference, first in one village, then in one nation, and now across Africa. Professor Maathai’s tireless efforts earned her not only a Nobel Peace Prize and numerous prestigious awards, but the respect of millions who were inspired by her commitment to conservation, democracy, women’s empowerment, the eradication of poverty, and civic engagement. Professor Maathai further advanced these objectives through her service in the Kenyan government, the African Union, and the United Nations. As she told the world, “we must not tire, we must not give up, we must persist.” Her legacy will stand as an example to all of us to persist in our pursuit of progress.
I was honored to meet Professor Wangari Maathai in Nairobi just over a year ago, and like millions of others was saddened to learn today of her passing. History will rightly record her most celebrated accomplishments, including that she was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. But her contributions to her home continent—and to our shared humanity—run far deeper than accolades can reflect. From its founding in her native Kenya 34 years ago, her Green Belt Movement spread like the roots of the 40 million trees it planted, making her a world-leading advocate not just for conservation, but for democracy, the rights of women and many other important causes. Working across disciplines and national boundaries led her to identify prescient and groundbreaking connections—for example between environmental degradation and poverty—that reoriented the work of policymakers, development experts and human rights activists, alike. When she found her government too unresponsive to the issues she championed, she ran for political office, and won. Her tireless work on behalf of society’s least privileged meant she often ran afoul of those in power, leading to imprisonment and financial hardship. But through it all, Wangari Maathai remained, as the title of her autobiography aptly put it, “unbowed.” “We continue to be restless,” she wrote in that book, “If we really carry the burden, we are driven to action. We cannot tire or give up.” Worthy advice for those who will carry on her work.