Wangari Mathai was an Amercian-educated Kenyan woman who taught rural Kenyan women to plant trees. In Kenya, because of deforestation, streams were drying up, food supply was less secure, and women had to walk further and further to get firewood for fuel and fencing. Mathai encouraged the women to work together to grow seedlings and plant trees. They received small amounts of money for the saplings they planted. Some of the trees provided firewood, so they did not need to walk such long distances, which kept them safer. Trees and plants bore fruit, which they could sell at the market for extra income. And trees bound the soil, so the whole local ecosystem started to change. Rivers came back, plants, birds, animals returned. And as the women's circumstances changed they became empowered. They started to question, to organize.
Because of her leadership Wangari Mathai was threatened, jailed, beaten nearly to death. Her work improving the lives of local women was a threat to the power structures. And yet she endured and won a Nobel prize for the work of her organization, The Green Belt Movement. Her life's work has inspired environmentalists around the world. I read about her 15 years ago and felt so inspired by the work of one woman and the community she built. She became a personal inspiration in my own journey, my own quest to discover what my own contribution might be. What she did was so simple, but required so much courage, so much vision, so much dedication.
The saplings the women of Kenya planted were real, but they are also a beautiful metaphor. Something so small that takes root and then grows to provide shade, food, heat, shelter. A whole forest that can change a desolate landscape into something lush, something alive. These trees transformed the lives of these village women and reconnected them with their own hope, courage, and dignity. I am inspired by how Wangari Mathai looked out at the desert and imagined a forest. She saw it in her mind's eye and she made it so.
Jai Bhim. Dayamudra