I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the Greenbelt Movement in her native Kenya. She died of cancer after a lifetime working for social justice, peace and the integrity of creation. Because of her tireless organizing, she became a target of government opposition in Kenya over decades, suffering beatings, jailings and intimidation. But she never gave up.
The Green Belt Movement, which she established in 1977, mobilized hundreds of thousands of women and men to plant more than 47 million trees in Kenya. This was a way of restoring the environment and improving the lives of people in poverty at the same time.
She was never one to see environmental restoration as an isolated issue. She understood at a deep level the links between peace, social justice and environmental sanity. In recent years, she became a leading global spokesperson on the dangers posed by climate change. As Wangari said herself:
"You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them."
Catholics can align themselves proudly with the legacy of Wangari Maathai. Her idealism can be traced to her family life and a strong Catholic education. In her youth, she was taught by Catholic missionary nuns, and graduated from Loreto Girls' High School in Kenya in 1959. In 1960, she came to the United States thanks to the African American Students Foundation -- and benefited from what was dubbed the Kennedy "Airlift," because a Kennedy family foundation helped fund this educational effort. She studied at Mount St. Scholastica (a Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas, and completed a bachelor's degree in biological sciences.
You can read more about Wangari Maathai's life at this link.
Her words offer a wonderful message of hope for all those who struggle for justice and environmental sanity:
"We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!"