The roots of a Silverbell tree are slowly expanding into the soil of an Arlington, Va. garden, where it was planted in memory of Kenya’s Dr. Wangari Maathai — like so many other trees growing in Kenya, in Africa, and around the world because of her inspiration.
Dignitaries, colleagues, and friends of Prof. Maathai gathered in the garden behind the worldwide headquarters of The Nature Conservancy on the morning of Oct. 19 to honor the memory of the founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, a heroine of the women’s and environmental movements and the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004.
“I was deeply saddened to hear of Wangari Maathai’s death last September,” said Kristen Patterson, manager of U.S. Relations for the Conservancy’s Africa Region and organizer of the event. “Prof. was a warm, joyful woman and a true inspiration for the conservation and women’s movements in Kenya and the world. My first thought … was that I wanted to plant a tree in her honor on behalf of The Nature Conservancy.”
Patterson said she had been deeply moved by a 2008 ceremony when she helped plant a fig tree with a Green Belt Movement community group in Tumutumu, near Mount Kenya. The Conservancy first worked with the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in 2008 to plant more than 720,000 trees in Kenya’s Mau Forest over three years.
During the Arlington ceremony, participants picked up a shovel and helped to cover the tree’s roots with soil.
Image Credit: Jordana Fyne (During her first visit to The Nature Conservancy’s headquarters, Ms. Nairimas Ole-Sein, Counsellor, Embassy of the Republic of Kenya helps plant a tree in memory of Wangari Maathai.)
Stephen Mills, Green Belt Movement U.S. Director, spoke of how he got to know Wangari when he worked for Sierra Club for 25 years, when she gave her blood (literally) to the people of Kenya to fight for human rights and women’s rights through tree-planting.
“I used to pick her up at Dulles airport and we’d go meet with Congress,” Mills said. “On more than one occasion she would have me pull over and she’d look at the size of the trees we plant here. She’d say, ‘what is that?’ She said, ‘In Kenya we plant these little, little seedlings. How do you plant these big live trees?’”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, W. Mark Bellamy shared the story of when he first met Wangari, a day spent carrying seedlings, shoveling soil and maneuvering big watering buckets, which he described as “probably the best, most useful morning I spent as an ambassador.”
Wangari was also a teacher who “helped us understand and interpret this glaring reality that was right in front of us … that so many Kenyans, so many Africans, so many people in the developing world live off the land … and it’s the quality of the soils, it’s the availability of water, pasture, it’s a bit of forest cover, whatever they continue to use for fuel. And not just their livelihoods (but) their survival.”
Charles Oluchino, The Nature Conservancy’s Kenya Program Director, told the group that Wangari “revolutionalized the way conservation works in Kenya through her blood and sweat … She was able to stand against the establishment for that which will take care of the generations to come.”
Collaboration now continues in Kenya’s Upper Tana River, where The Nature Conservancy is building technical watershed management skills within the Green Belt Movement to maximize restoration activities and establish an Upper Tana Water Fund (a tool piloted in Latin America, in which downstream water users help fund upstream conservation that protects water quality). Using tree-planting, GBM is mobilizing communities — especially women — to improve equity, livelihoods, security and environmental conservation.
Nairimas Ole-Sein, Counsellor from the Republic of Kenya’s Embassy, said she was very happy to see that Wangari’s “dream is living on beyond her and she has been able to inspire many people to carry on with her work.”
Lisa Hayden is a writer for The Nature Conservancy. This post is adapted from a recent blog on Planet Change, devoted to enhancing the conversation on climate change and inspiring actions of all sizes. Opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Image Credit: Jordana Fyne (A marker for the Silverbell tree planted on Oct. 19 in memory of Dr. Wangari Maathai in The Nature Conservancy garden in Arlington, Va.)