The Power of a Woman (by Rev. Mary Jo Bradshaw)

Rev. Mary Jo Bradshaw

Wangari Maathai, to the detriment of Kenya and the world, died last September. She was a storyteller, a scholar, a feminist, an advocate, and an environmentalist. She founded the Green Belt Movement, a nonprofit organization that has as its mission “to mobilize community consciousness –  using tree planting as an entry point – for self-determination, equity, improved livelihoods and security, and environmental conservation.” In 2002 she was elected to the Kenyan Parliament. She was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”.

In her memoir, Unbowed, Wangari Maathai carries on the Kikuyu tradition of her ancestors in a way that lures the reader in. What might at first seem to be no more than pretty stories are actually complex narratives. They are full of interwoven lessons about the natural curiosity of a child, about nature and family dynamics and history and politics, and about injustice and the destruction of an ecosystem and a culture.

Professor Maathai has a lot to teach a would-be religious public scholar. In addition to her formal education, which would be impressive even now but was even more remarkable for an African woman in the 1960s and early 1970s (a BS in Biology, MS in Biological Sciences, and PhD in Anatomy) she learned by observing the world around her.  Maathai noticed what was happening around her and asked questions – how, and why. She was able to sort through the conflicting traditions and worldviews of her Kikuyu upbringing, the colonial influence, and what she experienced in the United States, and determine what was valuable and what could or should be discarded. Those qualities – keen observation and critical thinking – empowered her to empower others. She wrote four books in addition to countless letters to newspapers and government leaders. Her work drew the attention and admiration of influential people around the world… and a great deal of negative attention from the powers she challenged.

Wangari Maathai was the kind of person I want to be, not because she was famous, or because she won the Nobel Peace Prize, and not only because of her self-confident spirit. She would have been a scholar even without her impressive formal education. (I loved the childhood stories of her trying to pick up frogs’ eggs and digging up seeds to see what was happening to them underground.) She recognized that Kenyan women, and then all Kenyan people, were being deprived of the rights they deserved. She recognized how the colonial-influenced destruction of the forests and the soil were having a negative effect on their quality of life. Others may have seen the same things, but she saw the intersection of the two.

Maathai was able to accomplish so much because it never occurred to her that she couldn’t. It never occurred to her that she couldn’t complete a university education, or compel the university where she taught to provide equal compensation for female professors, or expose and overturn the corruption of the Kenyan judicial system, to bring peace and democracy to her nation, or restore its damaged ecosystem. Among her many endearing traits is the fact that she was, apparently, genuinely surprised when her actions didn’t bring about the expected result. She refused to be defeated. She kept moving forward in spite of ridicule, beatings, and imprisonment. Like the hummingbird in the story from the Afterword of the 2007 edition of her memoir, trying to put out a forest fire one drop of water at a time, she did the best she could. She inspired others and the ripples from her little drop of water are still rolling.

Mary Jo Bradshaw is the Pastor of All Peoples Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Los Angeles. She is a Doctor of Ministry student at Claremont School of Theology, with an emphasis on Urban Ministry. She is an occasional contributor to Women Who Speak in Church.

  • Jennifer Gutierrez

    I agree Mary Jo. Maathai is an inspiration to all of us that feel called to be part of changing the world for the better. I most appreciated how grounded she was in her community. In spite of the time she spent away from her community and family studying, she always understood that she was representing her community and that her task was to use her education for the betterment of her people.

  • Sheri Kling

    I too very much enjoyed Maathai’s book, and especially appreciated – like you – her ability to connect all the dots and see behind the surface problems to their root causes. If only our leaders today had such vision!

  • Wes

    Nice post Rev. Bradshaw! I also enjoyed the stories form Maathai’s youth. Even though I grew up on a different hemisphere of the globe, with a vastly different social location, I could totally relate to playing with frogs in the creek, and gathering firewood. I think education is so key to Maathai’s story and life. She mentioned how without school she would not have put together the life cycle of the frog from egg to tadpole to frog. Yet, as you suggest, there is a deep wisdom apart from the formal education too. She is a wonderful example of taking the best from both worlds.

  • Hannah Heinzekehr

    Nice post! I also found Maathai’s book to be quite inspirational, and I found myself wanting to research more about how her work has continued since her passing away. One of my questions with such charismatic public figures is whether they are able to build sustainable enough networks and movements that they can continue after that individual themselves is gone, since sometimes individual personalities are some of the most persuasive mechanisms for change. In Maathai’s case, the movement seems to be still rolling, which only adds to the respect that I felt for her while reading her book!

  • Sandie Richards

    I echo the comments above– this is a great post about an inspirational woman.

  • Trina Armstrong

    Rev. Bradshaw, great reflection on Wangari Maathai! I loved reading her story because it is very vivid, and I was drawn into it from the opening pages. She was a phenomenal woman who understood the pain and the blessing of colonization.