Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Meeting Wangari Maathai

A chance encounter that I'll remember for the rest of my life.

I was standing at the corner of Delaware and Constitution this morning, waiting to cross the street, when a stunning woman, draped in traditional Africa attire, stepped out of a black SUV.

I gasped.

That's Wangari Maathai.

My mouth dropped and I stood frozen in place as she walked towards me.

"Excuse me," I said, "Are you Wangari Maathai?"

"Yes I am," Maathai replied.

"Oh my....I spent a year in Namibia teaching and read your memoir, Unbowed, halfway through my time there. It was so....moving.....so inspirational. I can't tell you how much you lifted my spirits. Thank you, thank you for all that you do!" I blabbered.

Maathai put her hand on my shoulder in a comforting way, as if to say, "It's ok. I know you're overwhelmed right now."

"When did you return from Namibia?" she asked.

"More than two years ago," I replied.

And then her entourage of colleagues and fellow environmental activists joined us in a small circle, all impressive, all very, very kind.

I couldn't believe I was standing in Maathai's presence. In 2007, halfway through my experience in Namibia, I had grown despondent about the state of Africa. Between the highly ineffective educational system, environmental degradation and poverty, I had slipped into despair.

I wondered what impact, if any, our efforts at the high school were having on the students'. And if, and when, some of our students graduated, would they be able to find jobs?

Even more specifically, how could I possibly ingrain my students with a desire to treat the Earth with care? In a year's time, it seemed near to impossible.

And then my mother came to the rescue, as she always does.

She mailed me a copy of Unbowed and I read it in a day's time. Nothing I was going through compared with the trials and tribulations Maathai had faced. And despite the challenges she encountered personally and professionally, she persevered. Most importantly, Maathai remained hopeful. As the winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, Maathai has famously said:

"What is done for the people without involving them cannot be sustained."

Meeting her today was a gift that I'll cherish for the rest of my life.

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