Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who became the first African woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, died from cancer on Sunday. Here’s how the New York Times explained her significance in its obituary:
Dr. Maathai, one of the most widely respected women on the continent, played many roles — environmentalist, feminist, politician, professor, rabble-rouser, human rights advocate and head of the Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977. Its mission was to plant trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to create firewood for fuel and jobs for women.
Dr. Maathai was as comfortable in the gritty streets of Nairobi’s slums or the muddy hillsides of central Kenya as she was hobnobbing with heads of state. She won the Peace Prize in 2004 for what the Nobel committee called “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” It was a moment of immense pride in Kenya and across Africa.
Her Green Belt Movement has planted more than 30 million trees in Africa and has helped nearly 900,000 women, according to the United Nations, while inspiring similar efforts in other African countries.
I remembered reading about Maathai on religion blogs back when she won the Peace Prize. A significant portion of her work was dedicated to the relationship between religion and environmentalism. So I waited for the portion of the obituary that explained the role that her Catholicism played in her work. It never came. The obituary did mention she studied at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas. That school is run by the Benedictine Sisters and you can read some great articles about their relationship to Maathai here.
I’m pretty sure the article I remember from years ago was this one that ran on Beliefnet. Here’s the set-up to a great interview:
In 2002, Maathai was elected to Kenya’s Parliament. She also currently serves as Assistant Environment Minister in the government of Mwai Kibaki. What is perhaps less well-known is that she was educated at mission schools by Catholic nuns (first Italian and then Irish), and earned a scholarship to study at Mt. St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas (now Benedictine College). There, she picked up a degree in biology and what she calls her “Kansas accent.”
Maathai, 65, remains a practicing Catholic while drawing on the tenets of other faiths and the religious expression of her community, the Kikuyu (one of Kenya’s ethnic groups or “micro-nations,” a term Maathai prefers). The Kikuyus’ spiritual home, Mount Kenya, literally Kenya’s highest mountain, looms large over the valleys of the central highlands. Under its shadow, Maathai planted a celebratory tree last fall when her Nobel Prize was announced. She spoke recently with writer Mia MacDonald for Beliefnet.
Reporter Mia MacDonald elicited great responses with her questions. Here is just a sample:
What are some of the values that you take from Catholic spiritual traditions you were schooled in?
One of the greatest teachings of Jesus, of course, is to love your neighbor as yourself. Christendom has not followed that commandment very well. We all know the history of people who promoted Christianity but have also been agents of some of the evil practices we know have been carried out against people in the world. It is still a big challenge for those of us who say we are disciples of Christ to follow that commandment. Many missionaries were inspired by the desire to do good by taking to others the message of salvation, the message of Christ, which they believed was the right message. Many sacrificed a lot. My own teachers are a good example. That is a heritage I cherish.
Christianity has sometimes been marred by people who proclaimed they were Christians but did not practice justice. Nevertheless, my teachers gave me a deep sense of justice and fairness that influenced me to work for human rights, and to desire human rights not only for myself but also for other people. Eventually, this made me understand why it is very important to expand that concept of justice to other species.
How do you use the Bible in your work?
I read the book of Genesis with people. When God was creating the Earth, every day he would look at what he had done and would say, “And that is good.” So I ask them, “If you look at your land, the way it is decimated, would God look at that and say, ‘It is good?’ If God was to look at your rivers when it is raining and see all the good soil he gave you to plant your seeds in the river disappearing, would he say, ‘This is good?’” I try to make them read the Bible, that book they read every day, with a new understanding and a new vision so they can see the wisdom embedded in the words.
Have you sought to engage religious leaders in environmental activism?
For the last few years, I have been trying to communicate with leaders of various Christian churches to urge them to bring protection and conservation of the environment into the mainstream of their faith and their teachings. I have been suggesting that Easter Monday could be a very good day for the entire Christendom to plant trees. If we could make that Monday a day of regeneration, revival, of being reborn, of finding salvation by restoring the Earth, it would be a great celebration of Christ’s resurrection. After all, Christ was crucified on the cross. In a light touch, I always say, somebody had to go into the forest, cut a tree, and chop it up for Jesus to be crucified. What a great celebration of his conquering [death] it would be if we were to plant trees on Easter Monday in thanksgiving.
Usually New York Times obituaries are quite good at incorporating the role that religion played in someone’s life. Maathai was quite clear about her religious views and it would be nice to have those included in the article about her life.