Pitt honors student, Nobel Prize winner who influenced Kenyan culture

| Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, 11:57 p.m.

A tiny maple tree burrows its thin roots into the soil beside the great stone base of the towering Cathedral of Learning.

Much of Wangari Maathai's work began this way: diminutive, solitary, vital.

By the time she died two years ago Wednesday, nearly everyone in her homeland of Kenya knew her name — and they still do, one of her countrymen said. The groundbreaking academic, politician, environmentalist and democratic activist Maathai's Green Belt Movement has planted more than 51 million trees and helped reshape the role of women in Kenya.

“She was a powerful figure,” said Nicholas Wambua, 26, a native of Machakos, Kenya.

Wambua worked in the capital of Nairobi before coming to the University of Pittsburgh two months ago to study law, nearly 50 years after Maathai studied here. More than 60 people gathered on a small patch of grass on the second anniversary of her death to dedicate a small circular garden in her name. Orange, purple and pale yellow zinnias grow in a thick ring around the center of the garden, where the young ornamental maple stands.

Like the sapling, Maathai's life's work took its early shape in her studies at Pitt, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said.

“To think that the idea for the movement that won her the Nobel Peace Prize was the subject of a paper she wrote in a leadership course here, and to think that she really got interested in environmental issues here,” Nordenberg said.

Maathai earned a master's degree in biology from Pitt in 1965. The organization she built, the Green Belt Movement, encourages women in rural areas to plant trees. It grew from conversations she had with women upon returning to Kenya from Pittsburgh. Rapid development and industrialization was clogging streams with sediment and leaving few trees to burn for cooking and heat.

The movement spread across the Atlantic Ocean, reaching United Nations headquarters in New York around the time the Rev. Maureen Cross Bolden, of St. James AME Church in Larimer, was visiting as part of a women's business group about 20 years ago.

The U.N. asked her group to help raise money to buy trees in Africa, a request that seemed a little strange to her until Wednesday.

“I never really knew where it came from” until hearing Nordenberg's speech, said Bolden, chairwoman of Pitt's African Heritage Classroom Committee. “Now I see where it started. That's really something.”

By the time Maathai died at 71 she had become the first woman in Kenya to earn a doctorate, become a professor and lead an academic department. In 2004, she became the first environmentalist and African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Perhaps her most enduring tribute, Uhuru Park, occupies the center of her country's capital. In the late 1980s, Maathai fought government efforts to develop the park into a series of high-rises — the kind of political rabble rousing that led the authoritarian regime to beat, imprison and target her for assassination. Wambua smiles when asked why someone would risk so much over trees.

“It's a movement,” Wambua said. “Something in the heart.”

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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