Pitt honors student, Nobel Prize winner who influenced Kenyan culture
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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Steelers nose tackle McCullers finds performance, fitness go hand in hand
- Padres snap Pirates’ 7-game win streak
- Paddleboard classes focus on fitness
- Driver dies, students hurt in school van crash in Indiana County
- Point Park graduate’s ‘mugshot’ photos hit nerve on racism
- Adventures still plentiful for Bellmar graduate Carol Nesti Riley in Virginia
- Pittsburgh roots shape former Md. governor’s outlook in run for president
- Ford City ambulance company recognized for quality of heart attack care
- Pirates notebook: Burnett rediscovers vintage form
- Judge to shine light on whether West Kittanning billboard is a nuisance
- Delay sought in enforcing regulation to make mortgages easier to understand