Again, there were gardens, fruit trees, water nearby. Again, the creek that once watered the village ran year round. Years of waters from the rains scouring the naked hillsides, topsoil in tow, had left nothing but a dried creek bed and dried water holes. And this was only to be the first village water, forest and earth being regained.
Wangari Maathai’s village was like thousands of other villages on the hillsides of Kenya. Beside these villages once stood forests that had held the rains and mountain streams, releasing the water. But slowly they were being cut down everywhere. Cutting down the forests, contractors said, meant quick money, a well paying job. The hardwood trees were valued lumber in England and Europe. The big leafed deciduous trees had created fertile soil where tea and coffee plantations might be developed. Foreign dollars were to be had. So steadily the forests of Kenya were logged. And the waters, like the other gifts the forests protected and shared, were soon being lost.
Before the forest sheltering Wangari’s village, Ibithe was cut down, she as a child had lived alone with her mother. Often, Wangari would go into the forest with her mother to find dead limbs for fuel, or to pick wild fruit or to fetch a special pail of sweet water. There was a place in the forest where the creek was sheltered by what Wangari remembered to be the most magnificent of trees. Under the shading shelter of the tree, her mother would sit. Nearby, Wangari would play in and along the spring fed creek. Wondrous were the little fishes and water creatures. Wondrous were the birds like the forest deer drinking from the little river. All this fused with the patches of hot sun and cool shadow, and the watery air, spoke to Wangari of a magical and holy embrace. Those times in that place gave Wangari a life time’s sense of what can and ought to be. Experiences yielded a vision.
Was she ten or eleven years old, when Wangari left her mother and village to go away to school? It was in the late 1950s that she went to the U.S. to study biological sciences. In 1966, when she returned from graduate studies in Pittsburgh, she brought several things back with her. Wangari had experienced the emerging ecological movement at work in Pittsburgh with its projects to plant trees, redeem the river and cleanse the air. The civil rights movement gave her a greater sense of what people’s movements might do for the well being of their society and themselves in the process.
When Wangari returned home to Kenya and her childhood village, her heart was broken by what she saw. Much had changed since she had left. And now the nurturing little river was gone, dried up. And the gardens were gone. And the beautiful forest was gone and with it the great tree with big leaves and birdsongs. Gone was the magical stream and forest of her childhood. Gone was the spirit of life among many of the village people. It all left Wangari in grief and despair. But Wangari would listen awhile for the wisdom to be found in her sorrow. So she gave it a room in the little house of her heart. And she gave it the time it needed to become a wise sorrow and its winter to become a kind of spring.
Years later, on World Environment day 1977, Wangari knew what she would do. She decided to plant a bunch of trees near her village home. Curious, neighbour women asked her what she was up to. She explained. Soon several other women decided that they too would plant seedlings along the old creek’s bank. And when they carried water from afar for their family, they would also bring enough to keep the seedlings alive. With Wangari, the women, in the following days, joined by a few others went with into the fields to look for seedlings. They dug up and replanted little saplings that had begun as seeds blown by winds or carried by birds or animals from remaining trees in the vicinity. Eventually, they would begin a small tree plantation with the seeds and little seedlings they had gathered. Soon there was a widening belt of trees being planted up the hillsides companion to their village. Soon, neighbouring and distant villages also had women planting seedlings near dried or drying water sources and hillsides. So began the Green Belt Movement.
Eventually, here and beyond there would be local tree nurseries. Seeds gathered from trips to remaining forests would provide them with accessible strong indigenous tree types at little cost.
Initially using money from her job at the University in Nairobi, Wangari paid the women a few cents for each established seedling. Eventually, there were other funders and a foundation. Within years, thousands of village women in Kenya were planting and nurturing millions of trees. This was facilitated by Wangari’s leadership role in the National Council of women. And what was initially solely an ecological initiative became an economic and democracy activating movement. For the first time, many women had their first “income”. And gathering to plan and talk about planting trees became discussions of the well being of the waters and the earth, and what activities and forces were affecting these for ill and good. With shared acts and sense of accomplishment, came a growing sense of power, imagination, good possibilities and conflicts. There as elsewhere this became scary to some. While there was dismissal and outright opposition to this emerging women’s ecological movement, they persisted and persist. In time, men of the villages began to join in. Not only in Kenya, but in many African countries and around the world, the Green Belt Movement has become a green fire.
As well as restoring creeks, wells and watering holes, the restored green dress for mother earth often meant the revival of individual and community spirit alike. The ecological devastation of deforestation had overwhelmed many communities and individuals sense of well being and self-confidence. To see their trees growing, their forests and their creek return, meant the ecology of the heart was on its way to being restored. The Green Belt Movement started by Wangari Maathai and the village women has become an ecological initiative with many branches and much good fruit beyond first imaginings. And so in 2004, in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wangari said:
We are called to assist the earth
to heal her wounds
and in the process heal our own —
indeed to embrace the whole creation
in all its diversity, beauty and wonder.
Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2013)