She thought that teaching women to plant trees could alter the world and give agency to disenfranchised women. So in her lifetime, she helped women plant 40 million trees across the continent of Africa. While working through the Green Belt Movement to foster environmental awareness and proactive care, she taught impoverished women that their voices and actions mattered. She believed that simple little things like sowing seeds could add up to healing her native Kenya, and maybe eventually even her mother Africa.
Dr. Wangari Maathai (1940-2011), educator, women's activist, environmentalist, and internationally recognized proponent for democracy and human rights, died this week at age 71 from ovarian cancer. The New York Times, CNN, and BBC News acknowledged the loss and paid tribute to Maathai, the first African woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. She was renown for her courage and determination to stand up to injustice, at times enduring police brutality for the sake of human rights. Her work is believed to have positively impacted the lives of up to 900,000 women.
Wangari Maathai was an admirable woman, and I imagine a large degree of her effectiveness was rooted in her quiet belief that the smallest efforts matter and do eventually add up.
I am easily taken by women like Maathai. I read about her fortitude, the diversity of her humanitarian work and the countless people she influenced to join in her seemingly endless resolve to bring justice, healing and empowerment to those marginalized by socio-economics. Naturally, she is a woman who causes me to think about what I do with my days and the things to which I commit myself. Reading about her death moved me to sit awhile yesterday afternoon reflecting on whom the women are that I admire and who cause me to imagine their communities are inherently richer because of them. The litany began with all sorts of women in the limelight—Michelle Obama, Madeleine Albright, Liz Lemon, um, I mean Tina Fey. Then I realized how unsatisfactory that list was becoming.
Who were the women in my daily life, in my own communities, that I admired and for what reasons? I will honestly share that I am surprised at who came to my mind. I will call her Maggie. I have only met her a few times and she is barely over twenty-five years old. She recently dropped out of graduate school and is struggling to find a job. I do not know very much of her personal story besides surmising that it has been a difficult one. But I know she's a member of the small Mennonite church I sometimes visit. And I know the church is full of babies and children. And I know that every time a child is born, this young woman takes it upon herself to make a quilt for the newest member of her ecclesial family. I hear her quilts are works of art. I have participated in handmade quilt-making. It is detailed-oriented and time-consuming work. It is also a craft mostly attended to out of love and generosity of spirit.
What Maggie receives in return is the awareness that she plays a part in threading together a communal narrative that fosters hospitality, beauty, care, and generosity. By the time these babies grow old enough to recognize and appreciate Maggie as their quilter, she may be long gone, married, moved away, perhaps even with children of her own. But her little Mennonite church will have a story of who she was woven together by the different threads of truth and memory that parents and older siblings will craft. Maggie may never make newspaper headlines, but she's already a household name in the kingdom of God, not because of the quilts themselves but because her seemingly inconsequential efforts are like sowing seeds in her community's commitment to nurturing one another. Who knows what will blossom from it?
Who are the women in your life that remind you that the little things add up?