Bittinger: To Plant A Tree

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(HOST) When she heard the news that Global grassroots activist Wangari
Maathai had recently died, commentator Cyndy Bittinger was reminded of
the many ties Maathai had in Vermont and the Upper Valley.

I first met Wangari Maathai at a Dartmouth community presentation and
was dazzled by the emerald green African dress she wore. But I was even
more impressed by the fierce energy and passion she had for her mission
of social justice, human rights, democracy and peace for Kenya and all
of Africa. At that time, she had already won the Nobel peace prize,
mobilized women across Africa to plant more than 47 million trees, won a
seat in the Kenyan parliament, had been appointed Deputy Minister for
the Environment, and elected presiding officer of the African Union’s
Economic, Social, and Cultural Council.

Yet she never forgot her
humble beginnings. She was born the daughter of illiterate farmers in a
village next to Nyeri. But she was educated by nuns when most girls
were left at home and earned a scholarship to an American college in
Kansas. That was the beginning of her academic career. Her Phd from the
University of Nairobi was the first for any woman in East and Central
Africa. The Greenbelt movement which brought her so much recognition was
her response to rural women who literally begged for firewood for
cooking, fodder for livestock, and material for fencing. When a
Dartmouth professor brought his students to Kenya to learn from her in
the 1980s, she arranged homestays, but refused to let them help her
plant trees, explaining that the act of planting itself empowered the
local women. That was the heart of her grassroots movement.

at World Learning in Brattleboro remember Maathai as a board member who
often visited to inspire and advocate. She was driven from New York to
Vermont by board member Mary Davidson who remembers the joy that Maathai
expressed when crossing over the border to Vermont where trees were so
plentiful. Trees were key to the new world she envisioned! And Vermont
filmmakers, Lisa Merton and Alan Dater have documented her life and work
in a film about to be translated into 20 languages. It will be used to
further her holistic approach to environmental stewardship and citizen

As world leaders now praise the work of Maathai,
one must wonder where they were when she stood up to power and was
beaten and jailed by the forces of Daniel Moi in Kenya. She repeatedly
put herself at risk, linking arms with her sisters to oppose a
skyscraper being built in a downtown park in Nairobi, opposing the
taking of public land in the city forest, and holding a vigil for a year
to free fifty men held illegally by the corrupt government. In the
1990s, Dartmouth professor Jim Hornig hastily arranged a speaking tour
here for Maathai as a safe haven.

Yet she harbored no ill will
and dreamed one day that her beloved Kenya might have forests like
Vermont’s! I think the best way to honor the life of Wangari Maathai is
to simply plant a tree.

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