Wangari Maathai (April 1, 1940- September 25, 2011) receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004
The death of Profesora Wangari Maathai a week ago, a Kikuyu mujer, (Kenyan born), environmentalist, feminist, activist, Nobel Laureate is a great loss to all of us. For me, I grieve that my students will never meet her in person. She was supposed to arrive and give a lecture at my university last week (University of Nebraska-Lincoln). Two weeks ago, her agent called to cancel the trip. All they had said was she had taken ill. She died a week ago of ovarian cancer. I was never to meet her in person, but am lucky to say, I have been a devoted follower for years. Mi tio Pepe would have loved to meet Profesora Wangari Maathai. He was the first to tell me about her one day while he was busily unshelling peanuts. I was spending the summer at tio Pepe’s house in Guadalajara.
“Mijita,” me dijo, “esa mujer, la Wangari Maathai, es muy inteligente y es Africana. Acuerdate que los Mexicanos tienen raices de Africa.”
Mi tio Pepe often told me that our Mexican heritage included African raices.
“Si—por supuesto,” mi tia would also say.
Mi tio loved getting newspapers from all over the world and he would especially have me reading newspapers from primarily West Africa when he could get them. And there would be this fierce woman—Maathai—fighting with the government to allow women’s groups to plant trees. My aunt and uncle knew what Maathai was doing. Maathai, they taught me, was making connections among and between the well-being of the environment, climate, and poverty. She was working to provide jobs to women, encouraging them to plant trees in order to save the environment—years before anyone was talking about these connections, about land conservation. On one of those summers in Guadalajara, mi tio showed me a picture of Profesora Maathai eating peanuts during a break from planting trees. “Andale mijita, la nuez tambien compartimos con Africa.”
Years later, I realized how my tio’s penchant for peanuts helped me link the connection between the peanut and Africa. For years when I was in my tio Pepe’s small printing press workroom (that he had converted from a two-car garage), the floor would be covered with peanut shells ground down into little bits so at first sight one might think it was sawdust. Tio Pepe loved peanuts so much that when he died, we buried him with a good amount of peanut shells inside and outside of his thin humble casket. Peanuts were all around us, a reminder of our the slave trade in North America, South American, Central America: our Mexica (some scholars write: Meshica) heritage.
In Mexico, the Nahuatl name “Tlalcachuatl” is much more mellifluous than the English “peanut.” Before it reached North American shores on slave ships, the “peanut” had various African names. For example, the African Kikongo tribe called it “nguba.” The name took on a harder gutteral tone when many Bakongo people were taken into slavery. At some point within the slave ships or out on the cotton fields, the soft sweet sound of “nguba” took on the clownish name “goober” in the United States. Today in Mexico, Nuevo Mexico, en Los Angeles, Denver, Nebraska—wherever our gente lives, wherever Spanish is spoken (pretty much in all 50 U.S. states) we call the peanut “cacahuate”—a derivative from the nahuatl name.
“Plant a nut or a fruit tree,” Maathai would be quoted in the newspapers mi tio would have me read. She never wavered, speaking to the women in Africa, standing up to the men in government, most notably Kenya’s strongman, Daniel arap Moi who represented a government who wanted to take Nairobi’s central park for development. She saves so many parks, planted so many nut and fruit trees. Then she traveled the world, including Mexico, to tell others about the importance of planting trees, about the link between trees and the survival of the land, the connection with climate. And through this hard work, she founded The Green Belt Movement.
When she won the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace,” there were many would wondered how planting trees could have anything to do with winning a Nobel Prize. In 2010 Profesora Wangari Maathai came to Mexico for the UN Climate Summit. She said, “[G]overnments must do what they have promised: take concrete action to reduce their emissions; deliver finance and work together to make low carbon development a reality; and protect those least able to cope with the impact of change . . . If we truly want to tackle climate change, poverty, and conflict, we need to think holistically. We need to, as Ban Ki-moon said at the launch of the UN global sustainability panel, ‘think big, connecting the dots between poverty, energy food, water, environmental pressure, and climate change.’”
Mi familia en Guadalajara understood the need for environmental sustainability and the importance of activism. They also understood the importance of recognizing and acknowledging our African history on both sides of the border, a heritage that is still not discussed enough or thoroughly among Mexicans, Latinas y Latinos/Chicana y Chicanos.
During the UN’s third global women’s conference in Nairobi in 1985, Maathai introduced her organization, The Green Belt Movement. Mi tia y tio called it, “el movimiento cinta verde de la Doctora Maathai.” This connection, as I learned from all those newspapers I read in Guadalajara, greatly aided her efforts in setting up countless programs in various countries (including Mexico!) to combat deforestation, water crises, rural hunger. Maathai had much more success in Mexico than she did in the United States.
May her efforts continue even though she is no longer with us! Que viva The Great Belt Movimiento! Que viva la Profesora Wangari Maathai!
For more information on la Profesora Wangari Maathai, just click here to see The Green Belt Movement website. Wangari Maathai: PRESENTE!!!