Last week, Wangari Maathai died at 71. The biggest question in my mind is how a poor Kenyan girl became one of the biggest players in the global environmental movement, the global women’s movement and one of the most influential Africans of the modern world. Perhaps only Maathai’s answer to such a question is appropriate.
“It is little things that citizens do that will make a difference,” she said. “My little thing is planting trees.”
And plant trees she did — 45 million of them, to be exact.
Founder of the Green Belt Movement across Eastern and Central Africa, Maathai Maathai empowered women, ecosystems and communities based on one central principal: planting trees increases the potential of a place in every aspect.
On her journey to reforest the decimated landscape of sub-Saharan Africa and empower over 900,000 women in the region, Maathai became the first female African Nobel Prize winner. She held over 50 international awards, including the Kyoto Earth Hall of Fame — twice — 15 honorary Degrees, founded various international campaigns and had various achievements such as the 2009 United Nations Messenger of Peace.
Yet Maathai was more than all this. Maathai represented a deep set of immovable principles, socially, spiritually and environmentally that hammered through some of the toughest issues our planet and people see today. For over 30 years, Maathai fought a corrupt government who labeled her as “subversive.”
Beaten, knocked unconscious and threatened, Maathai pushed through in hopes of solving some of the world’s most intense cases of environmental devastation.
A former mentee of Maathai’s stated, “She would say ‘yes’ unequivocally.”
Whether it was world peace, the protection of our environment or something simple like a single volunteer, Maathai believed in the power of “yes” and the potential behind everything. She was a modern hero.
But what does it mean for Maathai to be dead? The great woman once talked about “a time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other” she followed with “that time is now.” It is important to remember who Wangari Maathai was, but even more so, what Maathai did.
Yet the most important thing now is what you can do from her inspiration. If you think Maathai’s shoes are too massive to fill, just remember that a lot more of us could be taking the first step in the shoes our own shape and size. We are not hopeless; in fact, we are all living examples of hope. Do your little thing, plant your little tree of your own kind, and see how massive it becomes, who you become and who you inspire.