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The Woman Who Planted Peace

November 2004
The Woman Who Planted Peace

The Lighter Side

Okay, I admit it. When I heard that Wangari Maathai had won the Nobel Peace Prize, my first thought was, "Wangari who?" I was clueless about her and the environmental work she's been doing in Africa, perhaps because I get most of my news from the American media, which offer positive stories from Africa about as often as they offer positive stories from Jupiter.

But I have only myself to blame. If I had been a little disciplined in my Internet searches, I might have learned more about the Kenyan environmentalist and less about Russian tennis players. And I might have saved a ton of space in my computer's "picture" folder.

So to mend my ways, I decided to do some research on Dr. Maathai and was immediately impressed. Not only did she earn a doctorate degree, the first woman in east Africa to do so, she also has more ?A's in her last name than I had in college.

Even more impressive, she founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, persuading thousands of women, all over Africa, to wear green belts. No, seriously, she and her army of underprivileged women fought deforestation and helped renew their primary source of cooking fuel by planting 30 million trees. That's a lot of trees, folks, almost as many as Bill Clinton used up for his memoir.

Dr. Maathai, in supporting Kenya's parks, wildlife and forests, was willing to challenge the regime of former President Daniel arap Moi and for that she was beaten and jailed. The president and other men didn't mind her being an environmentalist, as long as she focused on the environment every woman should care about, the one inside her kitchen. Leave the big stuff to us, don't get in our way, and let us know when dinner is ready.

A lesser woman might have given up, but Dr. Maathai continued to fight for women's rights and democracy, eventually becoming a member of parliament and assistant minister of environment. She's well-deserving of a Nobel Prize, but critics may wonder how her work pertains to peace and how much time the five-member Nobel committee spent sniffing glue.

Committee member: "Okay, let's review the nominations. America has nominated George W. Bush for disarming Saddam Hussein of the weapons of mass destruction he didn't have."

Chairman: "Please thank them for their sense of humor. Next nominee please."

Member: "Australia has nominated tennis player Lleyton Hewitt for making peace with a Belgian tennis player. He has brought the two countries closer."

Chair: "Please tell them that making love is not the same as making peace. Next nominee please."

Member: "Kenya has nominated environmentalist Dr. Wangari Maathai."

Chair: "An environmentalist? What did she do ? negotiate a peace treaty between air and water?"

Member: "Not that I know."

Chair: "Did she make peace with her ex-husband?"

Member: "Not that I know."

Chair: "Did she smoke a peace pipe?"

Member: "Not that I know."

Chair: "So what exactly did she do?"

Member: "She planted a lot of trees."

Chair: "Are they peaceful trees?"

In the end, the committee made a wise choice. After all, as Dr. Maathai told Norwegian television, "People are fighting over water, over food and over other natural resources. When our resources become scarce, we fight over them. In managing our resources and in sustainable development, we plant the seeds of peace."

The seeds of peace. How beautiful. That reminds me of a question I've been meaning to ask you: Have you hugged a tree recently?

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