Wangari Maathai: Honoring a Powerful Female Leader and Speaker

A little over a week ago, on September 25th, the world lost a great environmental and political activist, Wangari Muta “Mary Jo” Maathai. For those of you who may not be familiar with her or her work, here’s a small snapshot of her many accomplishments:

  • Founder of the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots tree-planting organization, comprised primarily of women, whose goal is to reverse deforestation, provide firewood for Kenyan women, and create an income generating activity for rural communities. The program led to the opening of 5,000 grassroots nurseries throughout Kenya and the planting of over 20 million trees.  
  • Awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 1986. This prestigious, international award honors those “working on practical and exemplary solutions to the most urgent challenges facing the world today.”
  • Awarded the Goldman Award in 1991. This annual award honors grassroots environmental heroes from the six inhabited continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America.
  • In 2004 she was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.
  • She was an elected member of the Kenyan Parliament and served as assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources in the government of President Mwai Kibaki from January 2003 through November 2005.
  • In addition, she was a highly accomplished public speaker!

I had the honor to see Maathai speak in 2006, when she was a guest speaker at the Goldman Awards ceremony. She was a big woman with a commanding presence. She stood on the stage dressed in full African dress and spoke with the deepest, melodic, and most powerful voice I’ve ever heard from a woman. Her words moved all 3,000 people present to their feet for minutes of cheers and ovations. We all left her presentation wanting to do more—to be a part of her power, her strength and her vision.

I met her at the reception back stage later that evening. She was big and powerful in stature (I felt like I was standing next to a mountain), yet she was so warm and extremely gracious. She was truly a powerful leader and one of the best speakers I have ever seen.

Known by many as “The Tree Mother” and “The Tree Lady,” Maathai likened herself more to the hummingbird. In doing so, she often told the story of a fire raging in the forest, and all the forest animals gathered to helplessly watch the fire destroy their home. But one little animal, the hummingbird, decided to take action. She swooped to a nearby stream, gathered what water she could in her little beak, flew over the fire, and dropped the tiny water droplets into the flames. She repeated this over and over. Finally, the larger animals asked her, “What do you think you’re doing? You’re so little, and the fire is so big. What do you possibly think you can do?” And the little hummingbird replied, “I am doing the best I can.”

“And that,” said Maathai, “is what we should all do. We should always be like a hummingbird and do the best we can.”

Maathai certainly lived by her own advice and did the best she could, which ultimately affected millions of people and made a big difference in the world. My hope is that as more people learn about Maathai, her work, and her legacy, that the hummingbird in all of us will awaken and we will all work to make a difference. Then, when it’s our turn to fly away home, we’ll leave knowing that we left the world a little better than when we came.

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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