The lessons I learned from Wangari Maathai

Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai was an extraordinary woman. As the world mourns an indefatigable champion of human rights, democracy, and the environment, I am heartbroken at the loss of the woman I most admired, the woman from whom I learned some of life’s most valuable lessons.

I met Wangari almost 20 years ago. She was a member of the Commission on Global Governance, a group of 28 world leaders tasked with suggesting ways in which the global community could better manage its affairs. I was their press and information officer. As members deliberated weighty ideas, Wangari always grounded the discussion to the fundamental need for shared values. She knew that progress on any front, whether security or development or governance, could only happen if we shared a commitment to core values – justice, equity, integrity, and mutual respect. If we cared for each other like neighbors and cared for our global neighborhood.

Over the years, I had the privilege of hearing Wangari speak around the world at conferences and press events, townhalls and townships. I was always mesmerized by her eloquence. She captivated every audience with her warmth, charm, grace and humor; within a few minutes you couldn’t help but feel you’d made a new best friend. I miss her melodious voice. The way she repeated ‘very, very’ for extra emphasis. Her infectious laugh. And that smile.

When I visited Wangari in Nairobi, I had the chance to meet some of the women behind her movement. We went to the site where the first tree nurseries started, a sign for the Green Belt Movement marking the spot. The area, previously barren, was thick with trees – strong, deeply rooted, unbowed, like the woman who inspired their planting. At the Murang’a tree nursery, over a hundred women had gathered that day, dressed in colorful traditional kangas, singing welcome songs in Swahili. Proudly, they showed me how to plant a tree, highlighting each step of the process from finding the seeds to making the beds to making sure it grows. These are Wangari’s warriors, now 900,000 strong. They are infused with her dignity, her sense of action. They will continue her fight and sustain her passion. I planted a tree that day, a Meru Oak. The women promised to water it until I returned.

One of my life’s most cherished experiences will always be being with Wangari at the non-governmental forum for the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Huairou, China. Walking beside her was like being with a rock star. Women engulfed her wherever we went. They wanted to be near her and imbibe her contagious energy. She would stop and talk to each one, listen to their stories, and embrace them with her all-encompassing hug. Her stamina was incredible. Each day we would walk what seemed like miles in the rain, wading through ankle-deep puddles with arm loads of pamphlets and boxes of materials from one meeting site to the next. She was undeterred. Once she asked if I could arrange one more event, previously unscheduled. Foolishly, I said that it would be difficult. I will never forget her expression. That day I learned the lesson that has no doubt guided her journey: nothing is impossible.

After she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, Wangari often came to Washington, DC, with her daughter Wanjira. I would see her during these visits, and bring my children to meet her. I had told them all about my heroine – of how as a young girl she would drink water from a stream and play among the arrowroot leaves, and why that stream now runs dry; how she didn’t have shoes to go to school early on, but when she did get the chance to learn, she seized every opportunity; how one day she had an idea to plant some trees to nurture the earth, and how those trees multiplied to 40 million.

My kids shared with her their favorite book, fittingly, “The Giving Tree”. She shared with them her favorite story, about the hummingbird. When a fire breaks out in a huge forest, all the animals flee, except the hummingbird. The little bird flies back and forth, its tiny beak filled with water. The other animals are petrified. When they ask what the hummingbird can possibly do with its small beak, the little bird answers, “I am doing the best I can.”

Dear Wangari, thank you for inspiring me to believe that each one of us can do something – the best we can — to make the world a better place; for showing me what it means to live with dignity, to work with conviction, and to never give up, no matter the odds; for teaching me that we can live gently, but be fiercely committed to what is just; for sharing with me just how warm a hug can feel and how wide a smile can stretch.

“I will be a hummingbird”

In honor of Wangari, we’re helping plant trees for the Green Belt Movement through my son Zayd’s peace tree cards. If you’d like to support the effort, please email at For more information about his project, please visit:

Salma Hasan Ali is writer, storyteller and co-head of an NGO that promotes service. Her personal essay, “Pakistan on the Potomac”, is published in the Washingtonian. This article was originally published on

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