Dr. Wangari Maathai died on Sunday at 71, of ovarian cancer. It is interesting to me that so many of the obituaries get her work wrong – consider what the New York Times says:
Dr. Maathai, one of the most widely respected women on the continent, wore many hats — environmentalist, feminist, politician, professor, rabble-rouser, human rights advocate and head of the Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977. Its mission was to plant trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to create firewood for fuel and jobs for women.
It is a small error, but an important one. Maathai did not wear many hats – it was all one hat. Her role empowering and educating women, repairing and protecting her beloved nation, mitigating climate change and improving the lives of the poorest people around her by enabling their subsistence, calling for justice at every turn – it was and is all one work. Maathai’s great gift was her ability to see the intersection between environmental, economic, political and gender justice – and that it is not possible to repair just one piece of the world at a time.
I think it is easier to imagine that being a feminist and an environmentalist are two different things, easier to imagine that caring about human rights and deforestation are two kinds of caring. In fact, Maathai saw a whole where we are falsely inclined to see pieces. It was her vision that was right.
Some memories will always be for a blessing.