carol-christWangari-Maathai-1September 25, 2013 is the second anniversary of the death of environmental, peace, justice, and democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Muta Maathai.

Wangari Muta was born in 1940 in a round hut in rural tribal Kenya.  Wangari’s tribe considered the fig tree to be holy, and she was taught that one is never to cut a fig tree down or to use its branches for firewood.  Wangari spent many happy childhood hours in the shade of a fig tree that grew by a nearby stream.  Fig trees play an important role in the ecological system of the Rift Valley of Kenya.  Their roots penetrate the hard rock surface of the mountains to find underground water, thus opening channels where the water flows upward to fill streams and rivers.

As an adult Maathai learned that the fig tree she played under had been cut down by a settler with the result that the river had dried up.  This was happening all over Kenya on a massive scale to make room for cash crop plantations.  Rivers were silting up and widespread erosion threatened to turn the fertile Rift Valley into a desert. Crops were failing, animals were starving, there was no wood for cooking fires, and rural people were suffering.

Maathai  says that as she was thinking about this problem “It just came to me: ‘Why not plant trees?’ … This is how the Green Belt Movement began.”  Since Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, more than 51 million trees have been planted in Kenya and over 30,000 women have been trained.  The Green Belt Movement is now international and continues to plant trees around the world.

For Maathai this movement was never only about planting trees.  Maathai soon found that the men she hired squandered the money she gave them, while women had the traditional knowledge of nurturing food crops that made them the ideal caretakers for tree seedlings.  The Green Belt Movement also understood that it could not just plant trees, but must also educate the people about the importance of preserving forests.

Maathai realized that forests were being destroyed because politicians were not listening to the people and not safeguarding Kenya’ s natural resources, but rather were acting out of their own short term interests.  Maathai and her co-workers were jailed numerous times while attempting to inform the public about environmental threats.  Maathai ran for office more than once and founded the Mazingira (Environmental) Green Party of Kenya  which promotes the values of justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy.

Maathai’s memoir Unbowed is a moving testimony to the power of individuals and groups to change the world—but only if we “stand up” for what we believe in.  Reflecting on the Green Belt Movement, Maathai wrote: “it seems no coincidence that it was nurtured during the time the global women’s movement was taking off.”  Maathai was educated in Kenya when few women were, and she was continually vilified for not staying in her “traditional place.”  She was empowered and aided by the nuns who educated her and later by the women she met through UN conferences on women.

Like many of their generation, Maathai’s parents converted to Christianity.  Christian missionaries taught traditional peoples that God did not reside in nature, but rather in a place outside it. While Wangari was growing up, people still had a sense of the sacredness of nature, though this was rapidly being lost in her lifetime.  Maathai writes that for traditional Kenyans, “Mount Kenya, known as Kirinyaga, or the Place of Brightness, and the second-highest peak in Africa, was a sacred place.  Everything good came from it: abundant rains, rivers, streams, clean drinking water.  …  As long as the mountain stood, people believed that God was with them and that they would want for nothing.”

Maathai stated that the myths of her Kikuyu tribe indicate that they were once matrilineal—passing land and identity through the female clan.  I wondered if Mount Kenya had once been personified as female, as the Mountain Mother, the Source of Life.  Though Maathai refers to the mountain as God or the place of God in the above quote, a sense of the Mount Kenya’s maternal presence and power comes through when Maathai describes her feelings on learning she had received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mt_Kenya5“I faced Mt. Kenya, the source of inspiration for me as well as for generations of people before me, I reflected on how appropriate it was that I should be at this place at this time and celebrating the news facing this mountain.  The mountain is known to be rather shy, the summit often cloaked by a veil of clouds. It was hidden that day.  Although around me the sun was bright and strong, the mountain was hiding.  As I searched for her with my eyes and heart, I recalled the many times I have worried whether she will survive the harm we are doing to her.  As I continued to search for her, I believed the mountain was celebrating with me:  The Nobel Committee had also heard the voice of nature, and in a very special way.  As I gazed at her, I felt the mountain too was probably weeping with joy, and hiding her tears behind a veil of white clouds.  At that moment I felt I stood on sacred ground.”

Wangari Muta Maathai is no longer with us.  It is our turn.  The Mountain is waiting for us.

Carol P. Christ  is about to leave for the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she will lead through Ariadne Institute.  There she will bless and be blessed by the Mountain Mothers of Ida and Dicte.  It is not too early to sign up for the spring or fall pilgrimages for 2014.  Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference.  Carol’s books include and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

Categories: Activism, Earth-based spirituality, Eco-systems, Ecofeminism, Ecojustice, General

Tags: , , , , , , ,

9 replies

  1. Carol, I cried reading your post. And I recall when I looked in awe at Mt. Kenya, my breath literally taken away. There didn’t seem to be anything physically striking about the mountain, and I didn’t understand why I was feeling that way at that moment. Yet the mountain had a presence. Now I know why it touched me so deeply. Thank you.


  2. Thanks Carol, for this very sensitive and loving post. You mention that Wangari Muta Maathai said: “It just came to me: ‘Why not plant trees?’…This is how the Green Belt Movement began.”

    Commemorating Wangari’s story today, maybe there will be someone who owns some land and adds some trees, instead of cutting them down to get a better view of the river, or widen the driveway or whatever. The long stretch of the Hudson River along Manhattan in NYC used to be lined with old, abandoned warehouses, and junk yards, and parking lots. It had become a place out-of-sight to dump the refuse. Over the past ten years, about 70 blocks or more of that space has been cleared and the most beautiful parkland now replaces it (accompanied by a winding bicycle path), with veritable woodlands forming in some areas right down to the water. It’s not only a great miracle for the environment, but a profound healing that brightens the mind so joyously and profoundly, as you walk through it. And it dawns on one that a major change is taking place in so many areas around the world, all because of that one great idea…. ‘Why not plant trees?’

    What a marvelous photo of Wangari holding her sacred tree and dressed in African clothes!!! The Buddha also attained enlightenment, meditating under a fig tree.


  3. Thanks, Carol, for this beautiful post. I just sent it to my sister Amy Vedder, who, as a well-known American naturalist, gave a talk this weekend on how Wangari Maathai’s legacy lives on in the work of other conservationists.


  4. Thank you, Carol, and thanks for the life of Wangari Muta Maathai which you evoke and celebrate so movingly here.


  5. I was so excited a few weeks ago when I read they had discovered an underground water source that could help the people of Kenya for 70 years. But then people started posting comments indicating that big bottling corporations were probably going to take it over. Now, reading this, and reading about the Mall terrorism this week, I think maybe it is the flow of Wangarai Muta Maathai’s tears.. May she rest in peace


  6. What a wonderful piece of of an article. it reminds me of this writing too;

    When local researchers embarked on the World Cultural Decade 1988-1997, Mr. Kamitha was contracted to research and come up with a paper on how best to safe guard Mount Kenya forest from over exploitation. He based his research on the strength that the local community had useful knowledge and understanding of their environment that had guaranteed Mount Kenya as a renewable source of firewood, grazing and farming for millennia. Unfortunately, when Mount Kenya history in balanced management of the forest was lost, her Sacredness was lost as well.

    The research paper whose theme was culture and development was to reflect collective memory that balances the use of resources. When the knowledge is readily available it could be ploughed back for adaptation by otherwise ignorant community as the first step in policy writing.



  7. Thanks, Carol. This is a lovely piece. MEH



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