March 2 - Today's post provided by Donna Jo Napoli
Writing about Wangari Maathai
By Donna Jo NapoliJanuary 2012
One spring I got a phone call from the editor Paula Wiseman at Simon & Schuster. She said something like, “I want you to write a book about Wangari Maathai.” I said, “Who?” She said, “Go look her up.” Well, the conversation may have been a little longer than that, but it was short.
Over the following weeks I did nothing but read articles about and both articles and books by Wangari Maathai. And I told Paula, “Expect it,” and I began writing the book MAMA MITI.
Wangari Maathai was born in 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya. In that time and place not many people got an education, and those who did were mostly male. But Wangari Maathai studied in the United States and in Germany, and then returned to Kenya, where she became the first woman in central and eastern Africa to earn a Ph.D. She taught in veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi and soon was the head of the veterinary medicine faculty – the first woman to head a university department in Kenya. It was natural, then, for her to get involved with the work of the National Council of Women of Kenya.
Dr. Maathai studied animals and nature, and this work made her a leader in the fields of ecology, sustainable development, natural resources, and wildlife. But it also made her recognize enormous problems that Kenya was facing. Timber factories were deforesting Kenya, and in the process polluting the air and water.
It is hard to overstate the importance of trees to life on earth. Trees supply people and animals with fruits. Dead branches make wonderful fuel for hearth fires. The leaves of some trees are good fodder for some animals. The leaves of other trees are medicinal and can be used to cure illness in animals. The leaves of still other trees can be wrapped around bananas to ripen them. Trees with thorns can make good protective barriers against dangerous animals. Some trees grow straight and their trunks yield good lumber and poles for building homes. The branches of trees can be used as stakes in gardens when you grow vines. The roots of some trees are natural filters of the rain water, so that the water is clean by the time it reaches the water table under the ground and flows out into streams. The uses of trees go on and on. And on top of all that, trees can have beautiful flowers and can provide shade on hot sunny days and break the force of the wind on cold blustery days. You can climb a tree to see far, or simply for the joy of it.
Dr. Maathai had grown up with a respect for the many roles trees can play. In 1976 she started the Green Belt Movement. This is a grassroots organization that aims for peaceful coexistence between people and nature, largely by planting trees. Dr. Maathai began by encouraging village women to action, but over time more and more people joined the movement and today it is a massive movement that has planted millions and millions of trees throughout Africa.
This work was not easy for Dr. Maathai. She began it as a single voice speaking out against the destructive acts of certain large companies and against governments that allowed these large companies to exploit the land and the people. That took enormous courage. As she gained respect and influence, she became a force to reckon with, and she was imprisoned for her political activities. But Amnesty International waged a letter-writing campaign, which led to her being freed. Rather than walk away from it all, her courage only grew, and she continued her political organizing. She was imprisoned repeatedly through the years, but her work was so obviously for the good of the people that they couldn’t keep her in prison.
|Wangari Maathai in Nairobi, Kenya|
28 August 2006
Photo by Fredrick Onyango
CC BY 2.0
I chose to write a book not about Wangari Maathai’s life, but about what I see as one of the most important messages she had for the world. If you see a problem and you do the very best you can to solve it – and if all of us do that – then together we can make a difference. We can be powerful – even against strong economic forces. This is an essential message for children, in particular, because children are often seen as the least powerful members of society. But a child can plant a tree. A child can take responsibility for our environment. A child can become the custodian of the globe. We know that, thanks to Wangari Maathai.
Author and linguist, Donna Jo Napoli, "writes for all ages, from picture books through young adult books." Her awards are too numerous to mention but may be viewed on her website, http://www.donnajonapoli.com/ .
|copyright Donna Jo Napoli|