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Issue Date:  October 22, 2004

A passion for the earth and its poor people


Nobody hugs like Wangari Maathai. Her wide, warm embrace draws you heart to heart into the perimeter of her passion for the earth and its poor people.

When I met her in June 1992, she immediately embraced me outside a trailer, parked at the Global Forum exhibition park at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. In her bright turquoise robe with matching bandana, she stood out in the Tropicana noontime. By then, the seedlings planted by her Green Belt Movement were greening into more than 10 million trees across Kenya.

We met and hugged again in Beijing at the Women’s Summit of August 1995. At the summit, the Chinese police tried to prevent her and 1,000 other women from reaching Tiananmen Square as they marched against violence done to women worldwide. It was Maathai, dressed in brilliant yellow amid a sea of her sisters clad in black, who spoke of hope for a better world after the horrors that had recently taken tens of thousands of lives in Rwanda and Bosnia.

By the time of our third meeting on a third continent in 2000, I was already aware of Maathai’s strides to take her grass-roots conservation campaign and steer it toward a drive for human rights, debt reduction and democracy. She saw the role of the churches as central to this progression and met with cardinals, bishops, monks and religious leaders of all faiths and some of the world’s top scientists at Oxford University in 1998.

The Oxford Conference did some of the spadework for the global summit of world religious leaders held at the United Nations in New York, where we saw each other again in August 2000.

Like another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mother Teresa, Maathai showed that small, individual acts initiated with the poorest of the poor bear uncountable rewards and advance the peace of the heart and of the world.

Early on among Africa’s poor women, Maathai found the intelligence, resourcefulness, compassion and creativity that would source her own global career. That discovery explains the warm, unguarded hug she extends to all creation.

Patricia Lefevere, a longtime contributor to NCR, writes from New Jersey.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 2004

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