Only a few days before the 1990 International Open Space Conference in Palo Alto, I got word that Wangari Maathai would be attending.
Months earlier, I had invited the Kenyan professor to be the keynote speaker at the conference, but my calls and letters to the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya went unanswered.
Now, I was anxiously waiting by the gate at San Francisco Airport for her plane to arrive. I was worried. Would she be there?
I first learned about Wangari from a story in the New York Times. She led a group of women to occupy Uhuru Park, a treasured public open space in downtown Nairobi, to protest the government’s plan to build a skyscraper there—a pet project of then-President Daniel arap Moi.
The article said Wangari was considered a “subversive.” So naturally, those of us planning the conference knew we wanted Wangari to come.
In an effort to reach her, at one point, I called the Nairobi equivalent of 411—a 15-digit phone number— and explained to the operator I was trying to get in touch with Wangari Maathai. She put me on hold. When she came back on the line several minutes later, she conspiratorially offered three phone numbers I might try.
Wangari later told me she had been in hiding during that time.
Passengers were filing down the jet way. Wangari was the last to emerge, schlepping overstuffed canvas book bags slung over both shoulders. Her tardiness, and those well-worn bags were her trademarks.
Even at formal occasions, and there were to be many, Wangari would dig into those canvas bags and pull out a flyer or petition pressing for economic justice, democracy, women’s rights, and of course, trees.
When the news came that Wangari had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, I sent her an embroidered silk book bag because I knew she would be carrying those flyers to the elegant state dinners held in her honor.
Although we had never met before, Wangari greeted me at the airport as if I were her long lost sister. (She would pronounce it “seestah”), beaming her thousand-watt smile, and enfolding me in a deep, warm hug.
I felt what many of you here probably did when you first saw Wangari. In her brightly patterned Kanga, her round face framed by a corona of braids, it was like coming face to face with the sun.
Wangari’s speech at the Open Space conference was a revelation. She connected the dots: Development loans that enrich corrupt government officials and push African countries deep into debt. Poverty. Hunger. Deforestation. Lost hope.
Of the 60-story skyscraper in Uhuru Park that would be funded by such loans, she said: “If I didn’t react to their interfering with this central park, I may as well not plant another tree. I cannot condone that kind of activity and call myself an environmentalist.”
On that day Wangari converted local open space advocates to international human rights advocates. Subversive indeed!
In 1992 Kenyan police arrested Wangari and held her incommunicado. Emboldened by Wangari’s teachings that even the small and seemingly powerless can make a difference, I, under the auspices of The Greenbelt Movement International, a fledging nonprofit fostered by Huey Johnson—wrote to President Moi, and demanded Wangari’s safe release.
Later, when things became even more dangerous for Wangari in Kenya, she spent some time here in the states, teaching and lecturing. I have lifelong memories of some joyful times we spent together.
I recall when we went to Muir Woods. Darkness was falling and we had the park mostly to ourselves. The woods were fragrant and silent. We slipped off the trail and sat down surrounded by ring of giant trees.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I sometimes talk to trees. Just not out loud. Wangari would hold a conversation with them.
She began whispering to the ancient redwoods. When I remember it now, her voice was like that of a small, shy girl, not of the heroic Earth Mother.
I don’t remember her words, but what she whispered was filled with awe, admiration, and humility–like a prayer.
Joseph Campbell said: “God is the experience of looking at a tree, and saying AHHHH.”
I need to visit that grove now, hug an old redwood, as Wangari would have done, and imagine my seestah’s bright, Cheshire cat smile shining down from the big forest beyond.
Like the trees she loved, Wangari’s memory sustains and nourishes us.