It is autumn in England. Instead of light winds and falling leaves of amber and gold, we are experiencing a spell of unseasonably good weather. The trees outside my window are enjoying one last burst of green life before they have to give up their leaves to rest awhile and prepare to be reborn again in a few months.
Kenya’s Nobel Peace laureate, activist and former government minister Wangari Maathai loved trees more than most other people could imagine. She appreciated them as the lungs of our world and recognised the role that we all play in the interwoven scheme of life. But her work did not end in the forests of Kenya. Wangari Maathai was a visionary, an academic and a campaigner. She was a great environmentalist and a driving force that empowered people to improve their own lives.
Professor Wangari Maathai died Sunday night in Nairobi, Kenya, aged 71. She was being treated for cancer and enjoyed the comfort of her family in those final days. To those of us who knew her, the sudden sadness of this loss has hit like a bolt from the blue. People called her many things but to me she was always ‘Professor Wangari’. The combination of respect for the title and the warm familiarity of using her first name seemed to sum up the relationship I was fortunate to share with this great woman.
I consider myself honoured to have worked with Wangari at one of the most exciting times of her full life, when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. In years of campaigning, Wangari had been arrested, beaten and whipped many times and even faced death threats. As late as 2008 she was tear-gassed during a protest against the president’s plans. But now she could see a time when the opportunities opening to take her work to a new level. In one sense, the hard work was paying off. In another, the real work was only just beginning.
When we first met in her compound at Langata, Kenya, with monkeys climbing all around us, Wangari immediately put me at ease. Just off a late plane from London and unsure of what to expect of this great activist and heroine to many, I was struck by the natural warmth and goodwill that surrounded Wangari as we shared supper that night.
That first meeting was little over one month before we flew to Oslo for the grand whirlwind of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in December 2004. It was a wonderful time to be alongside Wangari, watching her work, seeing the respect she commanded and enjoying the warmth of her character. As well as being a dedicated hard worker focused on getting the most from every occasion, Wangari was a lot of fun to be around and we developed a strong rapport.
She was full of happiness and spirit, her smooth face often creasing in laughter at something that struck us both as amusing. Often it was not even that funny, it just made us laugh. But when it came time to work, she was set and ready to get the job done.
The Nobel ceremony is Oslo was a turning point for Wangari and her work. It was an endorsement for her achievements and a spur of encouragement for supporters around the world to continue with their work. Of course, the international media attention was intense, and this brought its own responsibilities and strains.
As well as the presentation ceremony and a meeting with Norway’s royals and political leaders, the programme included the Nobel Peace Concert. Hosted by Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey, the concert featured stars such as Andrea Bocelli and Cyndi Lauper. After the concert, Wangari was keen to go backstage, to enjoy every moment. When she met Oprah Winfrey that day, I watched Oprah in the presence of someone she clearly respected. There was a sparkle in Wangari’s eye as she met with Tom Cruise, too.
Over the following year, we travelled together extensively, worked into the night, and discussed many things. We trudged through snow in Davos, Switzerland, took tea with Buddhist monks in Kyoto, Japan, and met President Chirac and his ministers in Paris.
On one occasion we travelled the Congo River to a sanctuary for orphaned gorillas being raised in the wild. As we trekked through the jungle, our pace was slowed as Prof Wangari stopped every few metres to revel in the nature around us. She was in her element, which was clear to see, and it was infectious. I learned a lot from Prof Wangari that year.
In 1977, Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement to encourage tree planting and prevent further deterioration of the environment by motivating women in rural Kenya and enabling them to support their families through the creation of jobs that also protected the environment. As well as preventing much of Kenya turning to unworkable land and desert by forced deforestation, Wangari created jobs and enabled people to support themselves through sustainable living. She understood that for long-term economic growth, it is important for a country to manage sustainable development, ensure good governance and care for the environment and its natural resources.
Wangari encouraged communities to develop in harmony with their natural resources, manage sustainable business practices, and keep a tight rein on impactful environmental developments. She knew that good, clear and clean governance was essential to the development of any community. A country like Serbia could learn a lot from the work of Wangari Maathai. A case in point could be the extensive Danube development project, heavily funded by Germany and the EU, and the massive dent it will leave on the rural lifestyle of the surrounding region. A country like Serbia, with a weighty rural population and economic lifeline, can only hope to grow and sustain its economic development through considerate business deals, transparent governance and protection of its natural resources.
The Green Belt Movementhas now spread beyond Africa to Europe, Asia and the Americas. Following Wangari’s lead, they have planted more than 47 million trees to slow deforestation, prevent soil erosion and improving living standards for many people.
Wangari Maathai was honoured many times, most notably with the Nobel Peace Prize. Her influence grew significantly with that win. It forced World leaders to sit up and listen, encouraged wealthy philanthropists to make donations, and steered global policy makers to take another look at the direction they were taking. But the Nobel win was not her biggest reward. Her greatest reward was seeing the many lives she changed, the forests she saved and the impact she made on a better future for people and the planet. That will be her legacy.
On a personal level, I will always remember Prof Wangari as a warm and generous friend who was wonderful to be around. As well as the professional indulgence of watching such an impressive and inspirational woman at work, I took a lot of pleasure from the time we spent together: during trips to and from engagement, over dinner in hotel rooms or in discussion to prepare for meetings or speeches. In those moments, Prof Wangari was relaxed and at ease. That was the Prof Wangari I shall remember most fondly.
She was full of life and maintained a positive outlook, even when things were pretty bad. She had a warm, open face and a full heart. That is the woman I can see now. I believe that is how she would want to be remembered, as someone who appreciated the gift of life.
My personal memories of Prof Wangari are often a comfort and an inspiration. She left her mark on me, that much is sure. Only this past weekend, I was thinking of her as I walked among oak trees and bushes in dunes along the Dutch coast. It reminded me of that day in the jungles of the Congo Basin, and I smiled. It is true that I will miss her being among us but I believe that she will never be very far away.
Today the trees outside my window are still mostly green and enjoying the early autumn sunshine. There is a smattering of gold and yellow among the leaves, and birds are chirping in bushes ablaze with red berries. Shortly I will take a walk in the nearby woods, to enjoy the smells and sounds of a season on the turn. Professor Wangari will be there with me, I am quite sure of that.
- The Green Belt Movement has established a memorial fund to continue the amazing legacy of Wangari Maathai.