The Tree Lady And I

So January, the month of resolution, has finally passed. Looking back over the year, I was saddened to read of the death of Nobel Peace Prize-Winner, Professor Wangari Maathai. Four years ago, it was my great privilege to welcome and introduce the professor to 1000 delegates at a National Education Conference in Denver, Colorado.

She smiled as I joked of her birthday on April Fools’ Day, 1940, in the village of Ihithe, Kenya, East Africa. But this was no foolish lady. On the contrary, I suggested she had, by her achievements, fully earned the soubriquet ‘First Lady of Africa’. Indeed, her life had been punctuated by ‘firsts’; first East African woman to be awarded a PhD; first President of the African Union’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council; first African woman to win a Nobel Prize. Her life has been described as a ‘vision of hope’ and ‘a triumph of good over evil’.

In 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement which encouraged mainly poor women in Kenya to plant trees. Having started by planting them in her own back garden, she created a movement which has now planted more than 30 million across Kenya!

She went on to become a fierce campaigner for women’s rights, education, nutrition and the environment. At her endowment ceremony, The Nobel Committee praised her for taking ‘ a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights, in particular.’

But her work had not always been received favourably by the government. At the time I introduced her, she had been beaten, arrested, jailed, tear-gassed and the recipient of death threats. Nevertheless, I was delighted to inform delegates that she had been listed on the UN’s Global 500 Hall of Fame and named one of the 100 heroines of the world.

From the credits for her autobiography ‘Unbowed’, I read out how Bill Clinton had described her story as one of courage, persistence and success against the odds. I felt the words resonate across the rows of delegates, many of whom worked in tough, inner-city, public schools in the USA.

Clinton’s words should inspire, too, those courageous enough to work in the UK’s most challenging schools. Besieged, bullied and buffeted on all sides, such heroes remain deeply committed to an education system which truly values all children, genuinely promotes social mobility and remains determined that none be left behind. A great example herself of the power of learning in tackling social injustice, Wangari Maathi would have approved.

I concluded with one of my favourite quotes: “It is only through learning that the son of a mine worker can become the manager of the mine; that the daughter of a servant can become a doctor; that the child of a farm worker can become the president of a proud nation.” I wish I’d said that! They are the words of Nelson Mandela, another of the African pantheon.

In the acknowledgements of her autobiography, she concludes:

” All of the work I have done and continue to do… I have done for my children and the generations that will follow. When the road bends and I have no idea what will emerge, I think of them and gain the courage to follow the curve and walk forward, though the path ahead be yet untrodden. They are my hope and they give me a sense of immortality.”

A powerful, beautiful anthem for anyone who works with young people.

She has gone but will not be forgotten.

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