Wangari Muta Maathai (1940 – 2011) will be remembered and honored by millions of students, youth, environmentalists, professors and heads of state.  She demonstrated to the world that the eradication of poverty, the empowerment of women, and a sustainable future for our planet are fused in a single path to a just and peaceful world.  With her powerful vision and eloquent words, it’s no wonder she individually touched so many of us.  As they say here in Nicaragua to honor the life a heroine leaves behind, Wangari Maathai, Presente! 

Prof. Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, and has since mobilized hundreds of thousands of women and men to plant more than 47 million trees, restoring degraded environments and improving the quality of life for people in poverty.

Although I only met Wangari Maathai very briefly, her vision for creating social change through environmental stewardship and community organization has stayed with me for nearly a decade.

I helped to create a community garden in college, and with that innocent beginning became passionately involved in gardening and farming, eager to expand my knowledge and experience. So in 2002 I attended the winter conference for the Northeast Organic Farming Association.  The conference offered a smorgasbord of workshops and lectures, everything from plant pathology to how to douse for underground water sources.  Having recently declared cultural anthropology as my major, it was an easy choice for me to attend the lecture by a woman from Kenya who worked empowering rural women through reforestation.  For an hour, Wangari Maathai presented photographs and maps showing the achievements of the Green Belt Movement to a small group of Connecticut farmers, students, and environmental activists.

I can clearly recall the way she told her story with such optimism, humility, and confidence.  She related her years of tirelessly working to organize impoverished women and plant thousands of trees, transforming the landscape one hill at a time, in the manner one might use to tell someone what they cooked for dinner last night.  Her compelling argument transformed the struggle for equality and the fight for environmental stewardship into one and the same, instilling in all of us the importance of coming together across countries and cultures to work for a better world.

I remember approaching her afterward, completely enamored, and there and then asking whether it would be possible to come do my thesis in Kenya with her movement.  “Of course,” she told me without hesitation, “we have had wonderful students come work with us, of course you can.”  This is what I remember so clearly about hearing Wangari speak in person: she said yes unequivocally.  Yes, I have never met you but you can work with us.  Yes, rural African women have the strength and the power to reverse the damage of decades of deforestation.  Yes, we can bring peace to the world by planting trees. It’s that easy.

When the time came to begin researching for my thesis proposal, I began by contacting the organizers of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya.  As my plans came together, however, I decided I needed to work closer to home and use the lens of anthropology to reveal the intricacies of my own world rather than travel across the globe.  In the end my thesis explored the power of community gardens to transform an urban neighborhood in Connecticut, only blocks from my university.

When the Nobel committee awarded Wangari Maathai the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 I was thrilled, but also slightly remorseful for having passed up the opportunity to work with such a successful movement.   Over the years each time I have come across a reference to her and her work – honored by Forbes Magazine as one of the world’s 100 most powerful women, by Times Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, launching the Billion Tree Campaign, founding the Nobel Women’s Initiative and receiving countless awards – I am reminded of my past desire to go and learn from her.

My work with community gardening led me to organic farming, and my desire to work with social justice led me to learning Spanish and most recently has brought me here to Nicaragua.  Now I work with rural Nicaraguan families, coordinating a sustainable agriculture extension program and a reforestation project.  Together we plant trees into deforested cattle land, one hillside at a time.

And only now, as I sadly read her obituary nearly ten years later, it occurs to me that maybe I didn’t pass that opportunity up at all.