It was a beautiful day, and the children had been very good on a hike together. We had chuckled our way through the muddy paths still damp with the recent rains, attempted to climb a tree, looked out for robins, thrushes and hawks. Cows on these hillsides were minding their own business and grazing. Calves of all sizes made a welcome sight. A couple of pups were frolicking on the trail, and made for great hilarity. There is something alluring about the fresh outlook of the young and we enjoyed the hike taking in these heartening glimpses of life thriving around us. The children, puppies and calves on the trail that day were bursting with the fount of youth.
From up above, we could see the tiny houses lined up like toys on glimmering silver ribbons. The Earth around us was clothed in marvelous hues of Green, and peace seemed to hail. ‘Did you know? All those areas down there were fruit orchards with thousands of trees. Apparently, these hills too were more like forests about 50-60 years ago. Then they cut down the trees so the cattle could graze, but now the ranchers have gone, and we don’t really need all these hills for pasture, but the trees are gone too.’, I said sadly.
The children looked appalled at this, and we set about discussing how important and beautiful trees are. “I wish we could replant all those trees!” said my little environmentalists wistfully, and I heartily agreed.
The Green Belt Movement
A few days later, I was grazing in the library, when my eyes fell upon the beautiful book, Planting the Trees of Kenya, by Claire A Nivola, The Story of Wangari Maathai. I picked it up intrigued, for I love to read about that beautiful continent.
Wangari Maathai was the first woman to win the Nobel prize from the continent of Africa. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for making the connection between natural environments and the well-being of the people.
The book started off with the beautiful page depicting the Kenyan countryside when Maathai was a little girl. Kenya was clothed in its ‘dress of green’ when she was a little girl. Fig trees, olive trees, cornets and flame trees covered the land, and fish filled the pure waters of the streams.
The Fig tree was considered sacred, and it was one of her favorite trees.
Maathai then went to the US to study with the Benedictine nuns where she imbibed the lessons of doing more than you receive and to make a larger impact on Earth.
She returned to Kenya, full of hope, only to see the landscape completely transformed. Even the fig tree was gone, the streams had run dry and large-scale farming had take over the individual farmers needs. Food was more expensive and she was shocked to see that ‘economic progress’ had left behind a sickly, weak, and much poorer populace.
She was the first person to make the link between people and nature living together in harmony.
Why not plant trees?
As can be expected, she was faced with opposition and setbacks at every turn. Her nursery did not thrive, the governments did not embrace the program, but none of that deterred her. She encouraged the women to take up tree planting. She visited schools and gave the children saplings to plant and nurture trees and even taught them how to make their own nurseries.
She, and this is my favorite, appealed to the gun-bearing soldiers with the slogan : Gun in your righthand and a tree seedling in your left. She said to them that if their goal was to save Kenya, both aspects are equally important.
Ever since Wangari began her Green Belt Movement in 1977, tree by tree, person by person, 30 million trees have been planted in Kenya, and the planting has not stopped.
What can we do?
When I look at the hills near where I live clothed in its rich shade of green in the rainy season, my heart sings. But I know this is a short-lived season before we have signs saying ‘Brown is the new green’, and the summers dry out the landscape bringing with it the threat of wildfires.
Last year, the very places that were most damaged by the wildfires were also affected by devastating flooding in California. These are nature’s wake-up calls.
Every year roughly the size of the country of Costa Rica is being lost to deforestation.
Wangari Maathai died in 2011, but her lessons for us need not. What will it take for a similar program to take root all over the world, so we can save ourselves and our beautiful planet?