Tuesday, 29 November 2011
Wangari Muta Maathai Has Died at 71 and the Trees Will Mourn
By Jacqueline Herships of The Little Old Lady Stays Put
For various reasons which I am finally beginning to understand, I’ve been more of a hider than a doer in life. But during the last 10 years I’ve been coming out of my shell - poking around to see what’s going on - and I have become a sort of explorer. Amazing people are everywhere and it is becoming my great joy to meet them and to write about them.
And so, several years ago when I learned about environmental leader, Wangari Maathai, from an environmentalist friend, I went to hear her speak at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.
I never actually met her, but seeing her and hearing her discuss her life and ideas was more than enough to make a huge impression on me.
Wangari was born in 1940, in Nyeri, Kenya, one month less than a year before I was born here in the USA.
Her home was near a stream and a wood lot. As a girl, she would go to the stream to get water for her mother for cooking and drinking. The wood lot provided fuel for cooking and heat.
I grew up in the U.S. in what was referred to as the comfortable middle class. We lived in a solidly built house with running water and piped in gas, big enough to shelter a large extended African family but not regarded as particularly large in my town.
During this period, tremendous changes were occurring worldwide. In the U.S., small farms and woods were being swallowed up by subdivisions, urban sprawl and agri-businesses. Wangari’s wood lot disappeared into a coffee plantation. The stream from which they drank was first poisoned and then went dry.
While women in Kenya were increasingly struggling to find water fit to drink and chopping down the last bits of wood that remained to cook their increasingly meager meals, foods from around the world appeared in ever-greater variety in our supermarkets. Chefs drizzled their creations with obscure ingredients which would have tantalized Nero in another age.
Wangari was not the first to notice the connection between the disappearance of trees and the disappearance of clean water but she was the first to introduce that insight to the disempowered Kenyan women whom she knew and the first to urge them to respond by planting new trees.
For her efforts, she was reviled, beaten, jailed but ultimately honored throughout the world as a Nobel Peace laureate because she focused the attention of the humblest to the most powerful on the connection between trees, food, water and war.
We humans have tended to view history as a description of war and conquest, or at least that was how I experienced it in school. Histories were tedious lists of battles won and lost – the humans involved seemed secondary at best – the significance of cultures was not yet appreciated at all. Only recently have we noticed the causes of war which transcend battle strategies and the lust for power, such as the need for natural resources, food and water.
What does this have to do with Little Old Ladies? Just this: Society cannot be expected to support its weak and aged if it cannot feed itself. In the current atmosphere of senior citizen as dim wit, many of us who are strong and capable have abdicated our roles as wise and experienced teachers and leaders. I think we are afraid that if we speak up, others will notice that we are old and we will be dismissed, maybe even thrown overboard.
But there is much to do and it is up to everyone to do it – even old people, even senior citizens, even us. Africa and the third world are not so far away anymore. The problems they deal with on a daily basis have come to us now, too, in the form of pollution, deforestation, encroaching desertification, growing climate change.
I began blogging at the age of 70 because I thought it would help me in my struggle to figure out what’s next for me as I get old. At the time, I was thinking about income, health care, Medicare, housing - things like that. But I am already half way to 71 and although those subjects are still on the list, so far I find myself more drawn to people and places – among them special people who have crossed my path and who are using (or have used) their lives in ways that are worthwhile and wonderful to me. People like Wangari. I believe I am looking for teachers.
Wangari Maathai was a charming speaker. She told us that every person needs about 22 trees to get the oxygen they require and reminded us that we had better know where our trees are. I could see everyone mentally counting up the trees in their yards. But personally, I had no idea where my trees were. Are they here or are they in the rain forest? It’s a worry.
Wangari died on the 25 September 2011, and I am sad that she is gone before I had a chance to be in her presence again.
[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]