Wangari Maathai and Hope

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was the founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

I remember a moment shortly after she was awarded the Nobel Prize, I was celebrating her recognition; I was happy about her work being recognized and about finally a woman being selected. The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded 96 times to 129 laureates. Of those 129 laureates, 26 are organizations and 93 are individuals.  Roughly 52% of the world’s population are women, so you would expect about 48 of those individuals to be women, but your expectations would be shattered. Only 16 women have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. So I am always delighted when a woman is named.

And I remember a splash of cold water that was sprinkled across my joy when I mentioned Wangari Maathai’s selection to one of my friends who said, “Her! All she does is plant trees!”  But of course, there is so much more to planting trees than just planting trees. So, here is a little bit about Wangari Maathai – just because she is on my mind these days . . .

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, a rural area of Kenya (Africa), in 1940. She obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas (1964), a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh (1966), and pursued doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi, before obtaining a Ph.D. (1971) from the University of Nairobi, where she also taught veterinary anatomy. The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, Professor Maathai became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor in 1976 and 1977 respectively. In both cases, she was the first woman to attain those positions in the region.

The Green Belt Movement (GBM) is an environmental organization that empowers communities, particularly women, to conserve the environment and improve livelihoods. GBM was founded by Professor Wangari Maathai in 1977 under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) to respond to the needs of rural Kenyan women who reported that their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure, and they had to walk further and further to get firewood for fuel and fencing. GBM encouraged the women to work together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater, provide food and firewood, and receive a small monetary token for their work.

And here is Wangari Maathai in her own words:

It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.

When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and hope.

African women in general need to know that it’s OK for them to be the way they are – to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence.

And so I’m saying that, yes, colonialism was terrible, and I describe it as a legacy of wars, but we ought to be moving away from that by now.


And from this I will be remembering, attention to details, that every action contains within it the seeds of much larger actions, that there is strength in who we are as we are, and the importance of learning from the past and then getting over it and moving on to build the future for which we hope.

So, let’s get out our shovels and spades and begin to plant the seeds of the world of our best dreams!

Everything possible by Fred Small

 Everything possible

 The other day we were in Provincetown on Cape Cod and Jon Arterton was performing at the Unitarian Church. We had heard him before, and love both his voice and his choice of songs, so in we went. As always, what a wonderful treat!! This night it was Broadway songs with depth and meaning, and a few old favorites thrown in to round things out. Of all of the tunes, this one stayed with me the most. It is the lullaby that we all wanted to hear when we were little ones … (check out the link at the bottom to hear an early version of the song by the Flirtations, an a cappella group Jon sang with in the 1990’s).

This is just one of those songs that nests in my heart, and leaves me with a tear in my eye and a smile on my face.  I hope it brings a bit of joy and hope to you as well.

 Everything Possible by Fred Small

 We have cleared off the table, the leftovers saved,
Washed the dishes and put them away
I have told you a story and tucked you in tight
At the end of your knockabout day
As the moon sets it’s sails to carry you to sleep
Over the midnight sea
I will sing you a song no one sang to me
May it keep you good company.

You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still

You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around,
You can choose one special one
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.

There are girls who grow up strong and bold
There are boys quiet and kind
Some race on ahead, some follow behind
Some go in their own way and time

Some women love women, some men love men
Some raise children, some never do
You can dream all the day never reaching the end
Of everything possible for you.

Don’t be rattled by names, by taunts, by games
But seek out spirits true
If you give your friends the best part of yourself
They will give the same back to you.

You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still

Here are the Flirtations performing it on their 1990 album.

E. B. White and Hope

E. B. White is quite a wonderful author. As I troll the web I keep discovering bit and pieces of the literary gems he has so graciously strewn across our world. One of my most favoritest E. B White quotes shares this observation:  “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

Then today I was reading the BrainPickings newsletter and came across this letter that White wrote to a man in response to the letter the man had sent to him expressing the gentleman’s distress at the human condition. White’s letter can be found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) – a wonderful collection of letters based on Shaun Usher’s labor-of-love website.

 White’s letter, penned on March 30, 1973, when he was 74, endures as a spectacular celebration of the human spirit:

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society – things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.


E. B. White

 And reading this reminded me hope easy it can be to fall into frustration at the sometimes excruciatingly slow progress in building a world of fairness, respect and compassion, of how many valleys there are along with the peaks of success. What a wonderful testament E. B. White gives us to celebrate human hope and resilience.

 So today, this day, let us all go out into our world and be a source of hope, a source of compassion for at least a few minutes of our day. And if you can’t quite manage that, then at least smile broadly to someone you don’t know. You will either bless their day with an unexpected gift of joy, or set them to wondering what you are up to!