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Green Belt movement

A Tribute to Professor Wangari Maathai

Obiageli Ezekwesili's picture

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Professor Wangari MaathaiMy colleagues and I at the World Bank are saddened by the death of Professor Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement.

Professor Maathai dedicated most of her adult life to nature conservancy and was world-renowned for her deep conviction for environmental protection and climate-change mitigation.

We are proud to have interacted extensively with Professor Maathai. We pay tribute to her for her selfless and tireless efforts to protect the natural environment, both to ensure sustainable development and to promote world peace.

Professor Maathai was actively engaged in working with the World Bank Group, both in Kenya and around the world.  Besides engaging World Bank leaders in important conversations on forest conservation, water resource management, and adaption to climate change, she actively participated in the preparation and dissemination of the seminal World Development Report for 2010, on climate change. We remember how passionately she campaigned for a better understanding of the multiple ways that we can and should protect our fragile natural environment, as well as for the preservation of Uhuru Park and the Karura Forest, two of the most important green spaces in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi.

On the passing of Wangari Maathai

Warren Evans's picture

Yale Club, New York City, 2002. Photo by Martin Rowe

I came to the World Bank in 2003 with 25 years developing country experience − but all in Asia. I knew that I needed to quickly become familiar with other parts of the world, particularly Africa. So I went on a 10-day immersion “course” to Kenya, led and managed by Professor Wangari Maathai’s daughter, Wanjira. 

I first met Prof. Maathai in one of her District villages − she was serving as a Member of Parliament and Vice Minister of Environment at the time. I was greeted at that first meeting the same way she greeted me in all subsequent meetings −with smiling eyes showing warmth and true joy in meeting me, and her embrace sending a signal of graceful strength.  Our friendship was quickly solidified when she asked me where I was from. Kansas, I had said − and she smiled and told me that she had gone to university and received her bachelor’s degree in biology from Kansas!

At that first meeting, she was surrounded by villagers who loved and honored her. I thought that I was going to see trees and hear about the way the Green Belt Movement engages women to replant degraded and denuded hillsides with indigenous tree seedlings which they raise in village nurseries. Of course that was one part of the day but the primary focus of the Professor was on helping the village deal with the struggle against HIV-AIDS.

She had arranged for the construction of a small shelter for villagers suffering from the disease, and perhaps more importantly, was teaching them to grow nutritious food in the adjacent garden that would help give strength to those who could still lead a reasonably productive life. It was a community effort in an already-impoverished community that was hard hit by HIV-AIDS. Her love for the people and theirs in return was evident at every turn and in every place where initiatives were underway to improve the quality of the lives of the villagers, in part by improving the productivity and services of the surrounding ecosystems. Prof. Maathai was thus a pioneer in applying the concept of protecting and restoring ecosystems as a fundamental element of reducing rural poverty.