With the untimely death of Wangari Muta Maathai in late September, the world “lost a champion, sage and a visionary,” said Elisabeth Guilbaud-Cox of the UN Environment Program last night at the Washington, D.C. Memorial Service held in Wangari’s memory.
Standing in the historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, classmates, colleagues, and friends laughed and cried as they recalled memories of the extraordinary Kenyan activist. As they spoke, they shared memories of her favorite parable of the hummingbird, her first experience with Kansas snow, and her love of singing.
Many also shared visions for what her lasting legacy might be. “We wonder what we plant when we plant trees,” said Sister Thomasita Horman of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery. “[Wangari has] planted cooperation, freedom, peace, faith, responsibility, and compassion.” Every individual who came to speak – ranging from old classmate and close friend Florence Conrad Salisbury, to the Kenyan Ambassador to the U.S., H.E. Elkanah Odembo, to former President Clinton, who sent in a video tribute – expressed similar sentiments. “When the tree of Wangari fell, I think the whole world noticed,” said Ambassador Odembo, reminding us all of just how many lives Wangari’s work touched.
In Kenya, one way her legacy will live on is through the country’s new constitution. Thanks to Wangari’s efforts, as the Ambassador pointed out, women were prominently positioned; food, water, housing, and health were listed as basic human rights; and a chapter was included on land and the environment. While the Kenyan government had not always been Wangari’s greatest ally, Ambassador Odembo proposed one way the government can honor and support Wangari’s work: by implementing the constitution. The government has also honored her with a state burial, making her the third person in Kenyan history to receive this privilege.
What most seemed to recall was Wangari’s infectious demeanor: the smile, laughter, warmth and humility she shared. “She was real, there was no pretense,” said Guilbaud-Cox.
As Van Jones of Rebuild the Dream said, “the last word should be Wangari’s.” In honor of her great work and life we must “go out there and DO the best [we] can. That is all you can do. The best!”
For more on how Wangari was a driving force behind our work at Vital Voices, read our president and CEO Alyse Nelson’s tribute to her.