Norman Borlaug and Wangari Maathai were two unlikely Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. One came from small-town Iowa, the other from rural Kenya. They both won the world’s most prestigious award for growing things. Dr. Borlaug, honored in 1970, grew crops that fueled the Green Revolution. Dr. Maathai, hailed in 2004, grew trees and democracy. They were both deemed worthy of the Peace Prize because they worked to forestall future global conflicts by producing more food and preserving scare resources.
I am writing this because Dr. Maathai passed away earlier this week, two years after Dr. Borlaug died. And because it is big news here in Kenya, and should be everywhere else.
She was a pioneer who opened doors and spread democracy and gender equality in her homeland.
Dr. Maathai was the first woman in Kenya – the first in all of east and central Africa, actually -- to receive a doctorate (in veterinary anatomy). She was one of the first powerful female voices in Kenyan politics. She was then, naturally, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. On the conservation front, she founded the GreenBelt Movement, which fought both environmental degradation and poverty, which Dr. Maathai insisted were closely linked. The Movement has planted more than 30 million trees in Africa, where the rural poor, unable to afford electricity connections, burn wood for cooking, heating and lighting.
Dr. Maathai, Peace laureate, didn’t shy away from confrontation. Her most famous stand came when she took on the ruling party in opposing a government plan to construct a building in downtown Nairobi’s prime park and green space. She absorbed many blows both verbally and physically. The would-be builders eventually yielded.
“Her love for trees drove her to fight to save the environment, to fight for the most vulnerable in our society, to fight injustices, to fight for democratic space and this she did taking on strong governments and powerful men,” said Ruth Oniang’o , a Kenyan nutrition specialist and advocate for agriculture development that particularly benefits smallholder farmers.
Dr. Maathai grew up in rural Kenya and became a model for millions of girls growing up on smallholder farms where poverty and hunger threaten so many dreams. It is precisely there where her legacy will reverberate.
In her Nobel speech, Dr. Maathai said life in rural Kenya was the inspiration for her work. Now, she is the inspiration for women and girls in rural Kenya.
At a primary school set deep amid the farming plots of western Kenya, Dr. Maathai featured prominently in a parent-student-teachers meeting this week. The principal asked, Who died in Kenya this week? It turned out that the students knew more about the death and life of Dr. Maathai than the parents did.
Two who were at the meeting were Leonida Wanyama and her daughter, Sitawa.
“Wangari Maathai was a big person,” said Sitawa, an 8th grader. “When I perform well in my studies like she did, I would like to be like her. She was a leader of planting trees.”
“She made it possible for all of us to be leaders,” said Leonida, a village elder, a rare position for a woman.
The setting for this conversation on the legacy of Dr. Maathai provided an ideal tribute: An African mother and daughter, sitting together in the shade of a mighty avocado tree.