Wangari Maathai Dies But Spirit Lives on in Song and Deed

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

“Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.

You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”

Wangari Maathai at the Svalbard Global Seed VaultThe Nobel laureate from Kenya died yesterday in a Nairobi hospital from a prolonged battle with cancer. We had the privilege of interviewing interviewing Wangari Maathai several years ago, and she remains one of our more treasured interviews. But, it’s a song she sang for us that is etched in my memory.

In the waning moments of our conversation in a Minneapolis hotel room in the midst of a blizzard, we asked Ms. Maathai if she remembered singing any songs during her days of planting trees (estimated to be more than 45 million now) in Kenya. She replied:

“…we do sing sometimes, but those are very local songs. Like, one song I always sing when we are together with the women — here comes my faith — because there is a lot of our — people are still very religious, and so quite often when I’m talking to them I use religious songs. And one song that we always sing is one that says ‘There is no other god. There is no other god but Him. There is no other power but Him.’ It is like a chorus. You want me to sing for you?

And this kind of song would be appropriate because when we are singing, when we are moving, we always want it to be peaceful, non-violent, so singing religious songs was very common.”

She left us with this song (audio above), a native tune in Kiswahili that is often sung by members of the Green Belt Movement while planting trees. I used to sing it to my baby boys when they were upset in the middle of the night, a pacifier for both them and me.

On her Facebook page, fans are posting some beautiful, loving memories about her and the work she did. They’re definitely worth reading.

I heard about Ms. Maathai during my first IR class and I absolutely enjoyed learning about the Green Belt Movement. She was one of the first people I began to admire from International Relations. Bless her—and please read about the Green Belt Movement!

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