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Bittinger: To Plant A Tree

10/10/11 5:55PM By Cyndy Bittinger
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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.

(BITTINGER) 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.

Vermonters 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 empowerment.

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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