Saturday, October 01, 2011

Honoring Wangari Maathai (by Jan Cottingham)

Wangari Maathai died last Sunday, and I've been coaxing a good friend of mine, Jan Cottingham, to write a little about her experiences. -- Suzie

Wangari Maathai was the same person talking to a poor Kenyan farmer as she was with the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee or the chairman of the largest chain of newspapers in Japan. I saw her in those situations, but I'm sure her manner extended to heads of state. She treated everyone with dignity and kindness.

She was also the rare person, not to say public figure, who was the same in private as in public.

She was brave, smart, kind, honest -- whatever adjectives that denote goodness she was. She was also nobody's fool. We tend to equate goodness with naivete. Wangari Maathai was not naive. She was a good judge of human nature, and clever and cunning and outspoken when she needed to be, though, to my knowledge, never cruel.

Wangari Maathai was the finest person I've ever met.

I write "met," rather than knew, because it would be presumptuous of me to say I knew her well. I interviewed her in July 2005 for a profile for a magazine I edited. The magazine was published by a U.S.-based international nonprofit. When I left the nonprofit, I worked for "Prof," as Wangari's daughter called her, for four months or so as a freelancer, helping handle communications for Wangari and her nonprofit, the Greenbelt Movement.

She was "Prof" because she'd been a university professor. I didn't feel comfortable calling a Nobel Peace Prize laureate by her first name, and Prof was a good alternative. For she was, at heart, a teacher. She taught people how to plant trees for food and profit as well as for the environmental benefits they provided.

Prof also taught that we must be kind to the earth, we must love her. And she taught democracy and human rights, particularly women's rights. A scientist by training, she saw the whole of things.

She was the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize and the first African woman to win it. Prof was a lot of firsts, including the first East African woman to earn a doctoral degree.

She overcame many obstacles to achieve her firsts. She came from humble circumstances, if not poverty. She was an African girl born in mid-century Kenya, and girls just didn't go to school. But her brother urged her parents to educate Wangari because she was so obviously bright and curious. Prof always mentioned that brother, her advocate, with love because he had fought for her.

Her memoir, "Unbowed," is great reading for those who want to know more about her.

And I think everyone should know more about her because her life story is one long lesson in how to live right, how to make the most of whatever gifts you might have and how to use those to lift up others.

Prof wasn't a plaster saint. She demonstrated a sharp sense of humor, and because she was a keen judge of character, she could be wickedly funny and tart about people. She expected people to pull their weight. She had no use for laziness.

I must mention this: I swear by all that's holy that she exuded some kind of golden light and gentle warmth. I have never seen anything else like it, nor do I expect to.

Two last things: 1. Wangari Maathai, daughter of Kenya, had a great soul and showed me what greatness humans were capable of and 2. I loved her.