Wangari Maathai:'An alumna of whom we are most proud'
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
ATCHISON, Kan. - The cold north wind whooshing through town on Jan. 28 was no deterrent to the dozens of women and men gathering at the Benedictine monastery. Thirty-one alumnae from Mount St. Scholastica College and more than a few husbands, children and grandchildren, Benedictine sisters who live outside the monastic community, and friends, all converged on "the Mount" to welcome back Kenya native "Mary Jo" Wangari Muta Maathai, Class of 1964 and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Marty Denzer/Key photo
Benedictine Sisters Anne Shepard, left, and Thomasita Homan welcome Mount St. Scholastica alumna and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai back to "The Mount."
Shortly after 11 a.m., Benedictine Sister Anne Shepard, prioress, flung open the doors to the monastery dining room, raised her arm and called out, "She's here!" Maathai, wearing traditional Kenyan dress and headscarf and a smile that warmed the room, bowed. She was instantly surrounded by classmates and Benedictine sisters. Flashbulbs strobe-lit the scene. It was the first time she had been to Atchison since 1992.
Born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1940, Mary Jo Wangari, as she was known then, arrived at Mount St. Scholastica in September 1960, with a cardboard suitcase, a fierce desire to learn and a very vivid, very bright smile, recalled Sister Kathleen Egan, 91, a former speech teacher at the college.
On a full scholarship to the college, she was one of the first two African students to attend Mount St. Scholastica College as part of the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation's "Airlift Africa 1960," which paid her transportation.
In a reflection at a Mass in the monastery chapel, Maathai said she was grateful for the four years spent with the Benedictine sisters, "who became my sisters and my mothers. Asante (thank you). I came to this college when girls who looked like me didn't come to colleges like this."
She said she found peace, love and tranquility on the Mount St. Scholastica campus, and in the 1960s that was rare. The acceptance and love she received from the sisters and her classmates helped shape the woman she became, Maathai said.
Following her May 1964 graduation with a degree in biological sciences, Maathai earned a master's degree in biology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1966. She returned to her homeland and, in 1971, received a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi, becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate.
While teaching in Kenya, she became concerned about the devastation brought about by clear-cutting more than 75 percent of Kenya's woodlands over the past 150 years. She had become aware of the soil erosion and reduced numbers of livestock and wild animals used for food. She approached governmental foresters to ask for help to combat the encroaching desert, but was met by derision. Instead of giving up, in 1977 she established the Green Belt Movement, starting with village women.
Benedictine Sister Thomasita Homan, an English professor at Benedictine College and a friend of Maathai's for more than 20 years, said, "She began by giving small saplings to village women to plant and care for. Three months later, if the trees were thriving, she would give each woman a few pence (pennies) to continue caring for them."
Over the ensuing 30 years, the movement grew, just like the trees. Today, more than 6,000 village-based tree nurseries, run entirely by women, have revitalized the soil and changed the villagers' lives by supplying them with sustainable, renewable resources for firewood, building and fencing materials and giving them an income.
Maathai has become affectionately known as "the tree woman" throughout Kenya, and is credited with the planting of more than 60 million trees throughout the world.
In a video presentation at Benedictine College later that afternoon, Maathai said planting trees reclaims the land and natural resources, and plants seeds of peace, hope and democracy. "We humans are only part of this ecosystem," she said. "When we kill another part of this ecosystem, such as a tree, and we don't replace it with another tree, we are killing ourselves."
The movement helped empower women to solve problems in their own communities. They began to challenge governmental forestry policies and the Kenyan government's long-standing dependency on imported crops and foods. The villagers began to create "food security" by reviving traditional food crops and sustainable farming practices.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Maathai's efforts were applauded by villagers and world leaders, except her own. During the term of former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, whom she opposed on environmental and women's issues, Maathai was beaten, imprisoned, and had to go into hiding at one point.
Sister Thomasita said that one time, Maathai was so badly beaten by "heavy-handed police," she signed herself into prison in her own blood.
About that time, a former professor of Maathai's, Sister John Marie Brazzell, began writing then-Kansas Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, pleading for Maathai's safety. The correspondence grew into nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. After Sister John Marie's death, Sister Thomasita took over, forwarding her own letter to Kassebaum, recommending Maathai's nomination for the Nobel Prize.
In 1989, Benedictine College awarded Maathai the Offeramus Medal, established in 1957 for alumnae who had distinguished themselves in their profession, through service to their community, demonstrated loyalty to their alma mater and reflected honor on the college through their family and social life. Three times the college tried to present the medal to Maathai and three times she couldn't attend. Once in prison, once under house arrest, and finally in hiding, she finally suggested the sisters mail it to Benedictine friends in Kenya and they could get the medal to her.
In 2003, the newly elected Kenyan president, Mwai Kibabi, appointed Maathai as minister of the environment, natural resources and wildlife. A year later in 2004, she became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and the 12th woman to receive it since the first award was given in 1901.
At Benedictine College on Jan. 28, she received the Cross of the Order of St. Benedict, which is awarded to those who best exemplify the college's traditions and philosophies.
Maathai told the packed gymnasium, "We as citizens cannot just be observers, we need to be participants. Too often we blame others for problems. We need to accept our part in the problem and be part of the solution. God created beauty; man has in part destroyed that beauty. Man must restore it."
"We must remain stubbornly hopeful that we can change things. We must do the best we can."
Maathai left Jan. 29 for Grand Rapids, Mich., on a signing tour for her new book, "Unbowed."