The Lessons of Wangari Maathai’s Extraordinary Life

© Jasmine Qin
L-R: Elizabeth Babalola, Wanjira Mathai, Mia MacDonald, Peter Umunay, Dean Peter Crane
As a young girl, Wanjira Mathai never thought her mother's job was particularly special. She remembers her mother dropping her off at school, just like all the other mothers, and then driving off to work. She understood that her mother’s work involved some dangers, but figured that was true of police officers and surgeons, too.
It wasn’t until she grew older that Wanjira understood just how important her mother, Wangari Maathai, and the decades she spent advocating for social and environmental justice were in her native Kenya. As founder of the grassroots Green Belt Movement, Wangari Maathai promoted empowerment and ecological conservation through the planting of trees. In 2004, her commitment to “sustainable development, democracy and peace” earned her the Nobel Peace Prize.
“She wanted us to understand that that was her path, yes, but that it was not extraordinary,” Wanjira Mathai told an audience at the Yale School of Forestry & Environment Studies on Friday. “She was doing what she thought was right and that she had the capacity to do, and that we would each find… what it was that we wanted to do.”
Wanjira Mathai was on campus as part of a two-day symposium, “Africa’s Green Future: Nurturing the Vision of Wangari Maathai,” a testament to the fact that many believed her mother's work was far more than ordinary.
Beyond simply honoring Wangari, a former Dorothy S. McCluskey Visiting Fellow in Conservation who died in 2011, the event explored how her type of community-based advocacy can help African communities respond to the challenges of the 21st century, including natural resource management, land rights and women's rights, forest conservation and climate change.
Amy Vedder, an ecologist and primatologist who participated in a panel discussion, said Wangari would be pleased with some of the progress made in protecting biodiversity and community access to forest resources in some regions of central Africa.
“But, boy, I wish we had her wisdom and her voice with us now,” said Vedder, also a former McCluskey Fellow. “Because we're still facing some real challenges.”
As project leader of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace & Environmental Studies, Wanjira Mathai is playing a part in confronting those challenges, particularly the effects that climate change will have on African communities.
Her own career path included studying science and public health in the U.S. and Europe before leading her back to Kenya, where she worked alongside her mother in the final years of Wangari’s life.
“And fourteen years later I’m still there, doing some of the most satisfying work I have ever done in my life,” she said.
The event was organized by the F&ES Africa Student Interest Group (SIG).
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© Jasmine Qin
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© Jasmine Qin
© Matthew Garrett
© Matthew Garrett
– Kevin Dennehy    203 436-4842
PUBLISHED: September 20, 2013
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.