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A Mighty Hummingbird Has Fallen

Wednesday, Sep. 28, 2011

Upon learning to her great shock and sorrow that Dr. Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist, died Sept. 25 in a Nairobi hospital in Kenya, SCU religious studies professor Teresia Hinga shared her thoughts on the magnitude of Dr. Wangari’s contributions to sustainability, environmental conservation, democracy and human rights. Excerpts follow:

Prof. Wangari was the first (and so far only) African woman to win the  Nobel Peace prize in recognition of  her many years of work as an activist and  crusader for  peace, sustainable development, environmental conservation, democracy, good governance and human rights, particularly the human rights of women.

When she was announced the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for mobilizing grassroots women to plant trees to protect and reclaim degraded eco-systems in Kenya and beyond, some people thought the prize  was misplaced and wondered what  trees have to do with peace.

In response to these detracters, Professor Wangari reminded us that there is an organic connection between justice and peace. She reminded us that there will be neither justice nor peace unless we heed the imperative to conserve and reclaim rapidly diminishing natural resources and learn to distribute them more equitably and humanely. She reminded  us that indeed, many in Africa (and elsewhere in the world) are killed,  maimed or displaced in desperate struggles for  survival as people scramble for  resources like water and land which are becoming more and more scarce both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Thousands also die violent deaths daily because the scarce resources that are there are unjustly distributed-- with the monied elite grabbing the lion’s share and hoarding and commoditizing, particularly land (and increasingly water). For lack of arable land and also due to the crisis of global climate change that has increasingly led  to erratic weather patterns which  bring  extreme drought and extreme floods sometimes simultaneously, thousands die every year in Africa due to hunger and starvation. In fact recently we witnessed the crisis in East Africa, including Kenya, where thousands continue to face death by starvation due to prolonged drought and other exacerbating factors.

As the world grieves and mourns Prof Wangari’s passing, we also remember to celebrate the fact that as a leader, she was  a pioneer and trailblazer  who was an inspiration and a role model to many,  particularly women.

The story of Wangari Maathai and the grassroots movement she started is told in a recent documentary: Taking Root: The Vision  of Wangari Maathai. Her vision and work through the Greenbelt Movement has also inspired similar movements in other countries such as Tanzania,  Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, and Ethiopia.

In her persistent and consistent efforts to seek sustainable solutions to the issue of extreme poverty in Africa and other countries in the global south, she participated in the Jubilee 2000 movement and was chair of the Jubilee 2000 Africa campaign which urged for the cancellation of crippling and un -payable backlog of debts in Africa. The Jubilee movement pushed for cancellation of these debts, which, combined with the so-called Structural Adjustment Programs prescribed by IMF and World Bank, had worked to entrench  the African masses in extreme and deadly poverty.

Professor Wangari narrates her story of struggle for  ecological conservation, democracy, human rights and gender justice in her recently published autobiography, simply and suitably entitled “Unbowed: A Memoir”  “( New York, Alfred and Knof, 2006.) 

As we mourn and grieve at her passing and as we consider the  threat of being  overwhelmed  by the magnitude of issues facing  us, particularly issues related to the environmental crisis, climate change and its consequences,  let us take inspiration from  her commitment not to give up  the fight for a sustainable, livable world. Let us take inspiration from the “hummingbird” in Prof Wangari’s favorite parable on the importance of  courage and determination despite overwhelming circumstances. Like the hummingbird  which persisted in its efforts to put out a jungle fire with small drops of water carried back and forth in its tiny beak, Professor Wangari calls us to  commit to do our part , however small and Lilliputian, in seeking solutions to the multiple and intersecting crises of sustainability that we face as a global community .

May Prof. Wangari’s dream and legacy continue to inspire transformative action towards a sustainable world. Rest In Peace Mama Mazingira …You are a testament of hope and  an icon of resilience. You have left a green footprint in the world.
For more information about Prof Wangari see:  

*The Green Belt Movement Website:
*Documentary "Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai," and website
*UNEP  Billion Tree Campaign:

Other Books Featuring Prof Wangari Maathai Include:
1. Wangari Maathai: Replenishing the Earth : Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and Healing the Earth  : Lantern Books 2007
2. Wangari Maathai: The Challenge For Africa: Anchor Books 2009
3.  Ruether Rosemary (ed) : Women Healing the Earth :Third World Women on Ecology , feminism and Religion (Orbis Books  1996 : see PP172-184 essay by Hinga: “Gikuyu Theology of Land  and Environmental Justice”)

Sept. 26, 2011

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