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Remembering the Spirit of Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1940. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement, which, through networks of rural women, has planted 40 million trees across Kenya since 1977. In 2002, she was elected to Kenya’s Parliament in the first free elections in a generation, and in 2003, she was appointed Deputy Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, a post she held until 2007, when she left the government. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate of 2004, Matthai was honoured around the world for her work, including an appointment to the Legion d’Honneur by France and the Order of the Rising Sun by Japan. As well as her well known book- Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World- she was the author of two previous books: The Green Belt Movement and Unbowed, a memoir, and she regularly gave lectures to organizations around the world. Professor Maathai died on 25 September 2011 at the age of 71 after a battle with ovarian cancer

An impassioned call to heal the wounds of our planet and ourselves through the tenets of our spiritual traditions, from a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World

Photo: betterworldbooks.com

It is so easy, in our modern world, to feel disconnected from the physical earth. Despite dire warnings and escalating concern over the state of our planet, many people feel out of touch with the natural world. Wangari Maathai spent decades working with the Green Belt Movement to help women in rural Kenya plant—and sustain—millions of trees. With their hands in the dirt, these women often find themselves empowered and “at home” in a way they never did before. Maathai wanted to impart that feeling to everyone and believed that the key lies in traditional spiritual values: love for the environment, self-betterment, gratitude and respect, and a commitment to service. While educated in the Christian tradition, Maathai drew inspiration from many faiths, celebrating the Jewish mandate tikkun olam (“repair the world”) and renewing the Japanese term mottainai (“don’t waste”). Through rededication to these values, she believed that, we might finally bring about healing for ourselves and the earth.

"We've become detached from nature," Maathai once remarked. "And as you move away from nature, you become lost."

"I didn't think digging holes and mobilizing communities to protect or restore the trees, forests, watersheds, soil or habitat for wildlife that surrounded them was spiritual work," Maathai remaked.

But over time, her feelings changed. She found what was driving those who joined the Green Belt Movement — and in time, what was driving Maathai herself — wasn't just about fixing material needs. It was about meeting something intangible within people. The poisoning of the earth, the destruction of the forest — Maathai came to believe that human beings could feel these losses. "If we live in an environment that's wounded — where the water is polluted, the air is filled with soot and fumes, the food is contaminated with heavy metals and plastic residues, or the soil is practically dust — it hurts us, chipping away at our health and creating injuries at a physical, psychological and spiritual level," Maathai noted. "In degrading the environment, therefore, we degrade ourselves."

Maathai came to understand, however, that the opposite is true as well. As we work to heal the earth, we heal ourselves as well. There's even an emerging field of treatment behind this — "eco-therapists" have begun prescribing nature walks and time spent outdoors for the depressed. The challenge is that we're growing more and more divorced from nature. Today more than half of the world's population now lives in cities, and even Maathai's largely rural Africa is becoming more and more urbanized, and more and more industrialized. "In Africa, we're busy trying to catch up with the West and live the same kind of life that we see on TV," said Maathai. "But we end up destroying the environment to get the things that we perceive as development."

Maathai was right when she pointed out that we can't forgo the natural connection that we feel for nature, even if we are becoming an urban animal. "A certain tree, forest or mountain itself may not be holy, [but] the life-sustaining services it provides — the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink — are what make existence possible," she wrote. "The environment becomes sacred, because to destroy what is essential to life is to destroy life itself."

Wangari Maathai passed away on 25 September 2011, at the Nairobi hospital, after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer. She left us too soon. But her legacy is the light that guides our path to build a better world  for generations to come.

Her tireless work for a better and sustainable world could be the "simple solution" of faith, strength, wisdom and persistence needed to surmount the escalating challenges of super storms, droughts and other natural disasters of our ever-changing world.

As we mourn the loss of such an important African heroine, let us also celebrate her life and her contributions as we remember five quotes she left behind as seeds for change:

“My heart is in the land and women I came from.”

“African women in general need to know that it’s okay for them to be the way they are – to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence.”

“We can work together for a better world with men and women of goodwill, those who radiate the intrinsic goodness of humankind.” “All of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet. It must be this voice that is telling me to do something, and I am sure it’s the same voice that is speaking to everybody on this planet – at least everybody who seems to be concerned about the fate of the world, the fate of this planet.”

“Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own.”

The Passing of a Humming Bird – A Tribute To Prof. Wangari Muta Maathai by the Kenyan poet Mburu Kamau

The bird hummed where eagles feared,
Sang the taboo words,
Tuned to the emancipation of masses,
With an ecstatic difference.

She walked where angels feared,
Talked the language of the voiceless,
When the breeze blew against all odds
And put on a brave march.

As the dawn for our liberation – the Second Birth,
She stood for the truth, with fearless attitude,
And earned a viper’s wrath.

The bird lifted the land high above,
When she held the coveted prize,
For the quest in restoring our dignity,
And we all shouted in her praise.

She fought for you, me and us,
And made us proud,
Our future was restored,
At last, as it ignites our heritage.

Then the wind blew so hard,
That it was too difficult to steer,
Or perch on the nearest tree.

The wing could not move further,
And the sun finally rested on her,
Before, just before the dawn.

The daughter of the African cause,
The tigress that pounces,
The mother of restoring our dashed hope,
The fertility of the land,
The peace beacon of Kenya, Africa, the earth.
Rest in peace,
Prof. Wangari Muta Maathai

Sources consulted for this Blog:

Our History | The Green Belt Movement

Wangari Maathai: Spiritual Environmentalism—Healing Ourselves by Replenishing the Earth — YES! Magazine

Eco-Activist Links Environmental Work and Spiritual Values - TIME

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Read more:

Mother Earth is Crying: A Path to Spiritual Ecology and Sustainability

Visions of a New Earth: Responding to the Ecological Challenge- The Report