Environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai is being eulogized by presidents and prime ministers. She died in Nairobi on Sunday at the age of 71. Yet, to me, the most impressive testament to her legacy is the list of condolences from names you wouldn’t recognize. In a multitude of languages, these condolences are being posted in record numbers to her Greenbelt Movement website by regular folks around the world whose lives she touched with her warmth and genuine kindness as much as with her brilliance and her passionate dedication to protecting the environment and human rights. I am one of the many “regular folks” who share a fond remembrance of Wangari Maathai and mourn her loss.
Fresh out of college, I landed in Nairobi, Kenya in 1987 to work for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). I staffed a committee of women who were advising UNEP’s Executive Director. Professor Maathai was one of those women and a mentor to me in those months I spent in Kenya. In my journal, I marveled at her ability to translate her wisdom into messages that compelled people to action. Her ideas, I wrote then, “come through in her writing very clearly–down to earth and to the point, yet reflecting the depth and breadth of her training as a biologist. She captures thoughts and creates solutions that are often downright brilliant in their simplicity.”
Beyond what I learned from her writing, I received the enormous gift of her friendship during my stay in Kenya. She always greeted me with a smile. Her joyful laughter infused our work with the best of energy. She gave me rides in her big Greenbelt Movement van, amused, I’m sure, by a wide-eyed, young American woman off on a Kenyan adventure. She also gave me one of the nicest compliments I have ever received. At my going away dinner, she said, “I like Lucy because she has such an innocent face– a face that wishes all the good things in the world, and to which all the good things come.” I can still hear the cadence of her voice as she said it. The thought brings warmth to my heart and a smile to my face even now. I have been trying to live up to that compliment ever since.
My life intersected with Wangari Maathai’s for only a short blip in time. I never saw her again in person after my stint in Kenya more than two decades ago. And yet I have carried her presence with me for all these years because of the depth of her kindness. The wealth of condolence notes on her website from “regular folks” like me lets me know that I am not alone in this experience of her. Surely there should be some kind of prize– even bigger than the Nobel, I think– for people like her who can touch, move and inspire us in the short time our lives intersect and change us for the better for the rest of our lives.
Rest in peace, Wangari Maathai.
To read more about Professor Maathai’s work at The Greenbelt Movement, visit www.greenbeltmovement.org
To hear Wangari’s voice and read another beautiful tribute to her, visit the Being Blog at https://onbeing.org/programs/wangari-maathai-marching-with-trees/