By Lauren Herman

Wangari Maathai is not a household name in America, but for Kenyans and environmentalists, she is famous for her courage of conviction and dedication to environmental conservation, women’s rights and sustainable development in her home country and around the world.

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai

Maathai was the first female in East Africa to earn a doctorate and among the first females to serve in Kenyan parliament, but she is well-remembered for her creation of the Green Belt Movement, a non-governmental organization (NGO), in 1977 that has planted over 50 million trees in efforts to collaborate with communities to conserve wildlife and limit deforestation.

She is famous for saying, “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and hope.” It is no surprise that she was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

April 1, 2014 marks what would have been her 74th birthday. Three years ago, she passed away in Nairobi, Kenya from complications of ovarian cancer.

The day that she passed away, I was living and working in Nairobi. I vividly remember what I was doing the moment that I heard of her death, and I have learned from many others that they do as well. I make a point to share my story to convey the strong impression that she made on people, even a foreigner like myself.

The day that the news broke of Maathai’s passing, I was riding in a crowded matatu -- privately operated minibuses -- that are the most popular form of Kenyan public transportation. I was commuting during mid-morning traffic along Ngong Road in Nairobi to the office of an NGO. I was collaborating with staff members on a research project in nearby Kibera, one of the largest slums in Nairobi.

A solemn voice over the radio interrupted the blaring reggae music of Bob Marley to announce the passing of Maathai. I stared at the back of the seat in front of me in disbelief. The vehicle turned silent as the driver increased the volume of the radio,  he wanted to be sure of what he heard. I stared out the window wondering if everyone knew something that I did not.

I was not alone in my disbelief. It was a great shock to Kenya and the world. Maathai chose to keep her battle with cancer private.  

Maathai did not have the opportunity to give a TED talk, but there have been many who spoke about her on the TED stage.

“They call [Maathai] the tree lady, but she’s more than the tree lady...When she was planting those trees, I don’t think most people understand that, at the same time, she was using the action of getting people together to plant trees to talk about how to overcome the authoritarian government in her country.” – quote taken from the TEDTalk of Jody Williams*

“[Maathai] talks with the women, and explains that the land is barren because they have cut and sold the trees. She gets the women to plant new tress and water them, drop by drop. In a matter of five or six years, they have a forest, the soil is enriched, and the village is saved.” – quote taken from the TEDTalk of Isabel Allende*

As described above, unity was at the core of Maathai’s actions and words. She believed that unification of communities and global networks is the only hope for sustainable development and the survival of future generations and all species.

Without any doubt, these are ideas worth spreading, which is the very message behind all TED talks. Thus, I encourage TED enthusiasts to honor Maathai by exploring and taking up her ideals. This is our gift to you, Wangari. Happy, happy birthday!

*Quotes taken from the blog post entitled “Honoring Wangari Maathai” written and posted by Thu-Huong Ha.