Listening to BBC news early this morning, I heard the announcer mention Wangari Maathai, 2004 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Expecting to hear of a new initiative of hers to help the environment, instead I was saddened to learn of her death at age 71. It is hard to believe that the energetic Wangari Maathai is dead. Whenever I think of her—even now—I see and hear a woman full of life, laughter, and an endless energy to work for peace and justice for her beloved Kenya and all of humanity.
I met Wangari Maathai in 2002 when she spoke at a conference at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. There, she gave an impassioned talk about humanity’s plight. “We’ve boarded the wrong bus. We’re going in the wrong direction. We’ve got to turn the bus around.” Exhorting us in her melodious Kenyan accent, Maathai made us believe we could reverse backward foreign policy and misguided environmental policy. In doing so, we could put humanity back on course to create a more just and peaceful world.
With my middle school students, Wangari Maathai’s message resonates as well. We study the lives and impact of those who have helped change the world, examining their steps in doing so. I plaster my walls with inspirational photographs, posters, and quotations and frequently refer to Nobel Peace Prize winners such as Wangari Maathai.
In her memoir Unbowed and in numerous radio and TV interviews, Maathai described her childhood, education, and family, as well as the political, moral, and ecological awareness that inspired her to found Kenya’s Greenbelt Movement. Recounting jailings, beatings, and ridicule at the hands of corrupt and dismissive government officials, Maathai wrote, “What I have learned over the years is that we must be patient, persistent, and committed.” Comparing peace to a traditional African stool, whose three legs represent human and ecological rights, sustainable management of resources, and cultivation of cultures of peace, she reminded us that the trees we plant today benefit others in the future.
In my classes, we use her advice in our daily academic, athletic, and social endeavors as well as when we take action to help others—in our classroom and beyond. My history class “final exam” is a social action project. Students working alone and in small groups identify something wrong in the world and work to make it better. I further invite each student to consider how the problem on which they will work fits into the global picture. Studying Peace Prize laureates allows students to meet leaders who use critical and compassionate thinking about root causes of local and global problems in active service to the global community.
My students are awestruck at Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement of Kenya. Maathai started this movement with and for women, to help them organize their communities and reclaim their lands from land grabbers and deforestation. When students hear how this small movement grew until it has planted over 45 million trees, pairs of students look at each other and exclaim, “We’re going to plant trees! It’s good for the environment, and that’s good for peace!”
Introduce your students to Wangari Maathai. Her message and inspiration are timeless.
For middle and upper school students, this 3-minute YouTube excerpt is suitable. Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5GX6JktJZg . The excerpt is from a PBS Independent Lens production. Background information on Maathai’s life and work (as well as additional interviews) can be found at http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/takingroot/ . The Nobel Peace Prize website has biographical information and videos of Maathai’s Nobel acceptance speech and an interview as well: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/# .
For elementary school students, consider reading one of several illustrated children’s books, such as Wangari’s Trees of Peace. Or, share “I will be a hummingbird,” a 2-minute animated video excerpt from Dirt, the Movie. Live and with colorful animated images, Maathai cheerfully compares herself to an energetic and ever-hopeful hummingbird, bringing drops of water to put out a forest fire: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGMW6YWjMxw .
“I will be a hummingbird,” Wangari explains. “I will do the best I can.” Let’s keep the message and work of Wangari Maathai alive by sharing her legacy with our students. We can turn the bus around.