On this day in 2007, Wangari Maathai told an audience at the Royal Geographical Society and Botanic Gardens Conservation International why even the smallest gesture to improve the world matters.
Wangari Maathai was a passionate advocate for the environment and a political activist from Kenya, and founder of the Green Belt Movement. She was the first woman from Africa to be awarded the Nobel Prize — and the first environmentalist to receive it.
“I may be insignificant, but I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching the planet goes down the drain. I will be a hummingbird.”
Maathai was born in a rural village in the central highlands of Kenya and went on to receive advanced degrees — the first woman PhD in her country. She became an expert in veterinary anatomy, and along the way she became aware of the extreme environmental degradation in her country.
She came up with the idea of planting trees and encouraged women across Kenya to create tree nurseries, in particular species were native to their area.
Over time Maathai developed her project into a broad-based, grassroots organization focused on conserving the environment and improving quality of life in Kenya, which became known as the Green Belt Movement.
Through that initiative, she assisted women in planting more than 20 million trees on their farms and on schools and church compounds. Her tree-plating movement not only restored the environment but provided poor rural women with modest incomes.
In 2004, Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace.
She passed away in 2011, but the Green Belt Movement continues to alleviate the needless destruction of the environment across Africa, and support the expansion of parkland and forests.
Maathai used her public voice to speak at conferences and other high-profile events, and she especially loved speaking to students and children. The hummingbird tale, which originally came from Japan, was one of her favorites — a profound expression of her philosophy about living purposefully in the world.
The hummingbird’s beak is tiny, but the drops of water it carries help extinguish the forest fire.
“That to me is what all of us should do,” Mathaai said. “We should always be like a hummingbird. I may be insignificant, but I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching the planet goes down the drain. I will be a hummingbird, I will do the best I can.”
You can watch her tell the story here.
(Photo: Laurel Maryland)
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