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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wangari's Trees of Peace

Wangari's Trees of Peace
A True Story from Africa

by Jeanette Winter

Ages 4-8

"The Earth was naked.
For me the mission was to try to cover it with green."
- Wangari Maathai, Environmentalist and winner of Nobel Peace Prize (2004)

What is peace? It is a hard concept for my five year old to fathom. Peace is living in harmony with oneself, one's neighbors, one's environment. Peace is acting kindly towards all beings, respectful and nurturing, not destroying mindlessly. Not acting violently wreaking damage that we can't repair, but acting with love, tolerance, and empathy.

In African tradition, a tree is a symbol of peace.

The book is about the life of Wangari Maathai, a brilliant student from Kenya who won the Kennedy Scholarship to pursue her studies in America, returned to Kenya to attend University of Nairobi, and became the first woman from East Africa to earn a Ph.D. 

When she returned to Kenya, Wangari was shocked to see the lush green trees destroyed to give way to new buildings. The effects of deforestation were drastic enough to jolt her into action. In 1977, on World Environment Day, she started the Green Belt Movement Kenya, with a simple goal of getting the greenery back in her backyard by planting nine seedlings.

She enlisted women from her community, village, to plant more seedlings, started a nursery, even paid women if their seedlings survived and established themselves for over three months. For many of these women, this is the first salary they earned, for doing what they normally would have done.

The clear-cutting leading to desertification, bringing along with it erosion and lack of firewood, made life more challenging and tedious, especially for women who had to walk miles to gather a few sticks of firewood for daily needs.

Soon the word spread like wind traveling through leaves, and women in other villages, towns and cities were planting seedlings fighting against the continued cutting. Wangari tries to protect these mighty trees and gets put in jail for being a troublemaker. She doesn't wilt, she stands tall.

Her fight against the denuding of Earth inspires many others to spring to action. Soon the greenery is restored enough to make a difference all over Kenya. The world hears of Wangari's relentless campaign to bring the green back to Kenya, to reestablish the symbol of peace that was indiscriminately ravaged.

The illustrations are stark, colorful and complement the text well. And the book itself is published in recycled paper.

While the story of her life is simplified in this presentation, the fact that one person can make a difference, can effect a dramatic change, comes across loud and clear. She did not have to plant all the thousands of trees herself, but, through her actions, leadership, vision, dedication and perseverance, she managed to inspire others to take charge and do the needful, do the right thing.

 "Who was cutting down the trees?" was her first question and it was hard for the five year old to understand who exactly the "government men" were and why they could cut down trees when Wangari tried to protect the trees.

However, the page showing Wangari beaten by the policeman and thrown in jail did disturb my daughter a bit, especially the drops of blood trickling from her forehead. When I showed Ana a picture of Wangari Maathai on the web and told her about her still living in Africa, she naïvely wondered if that beating left a scar. But, a subsequent discussion managed to ease her mind enough to get past it and reconcile it by stating that the policeman should have apologized to her for being so mean and hurtful, and promised never to do that again.

The Author's Note mentions that true to her passion, the first act Wangari did when she heard about winning the Nobel Peace Prize was to plant a Nandi flame tree at the base of Mount Kenya.

On this International Day of Peace (Sept 21), as we ask ourselves, "what does peace mean to me?" and explore this topic with our kids, we can share one aspect of it via Wangari Maathai's life and her words in her acceptance speech:

"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". 

[Cross-posted at Saffron Tree]

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At 12:07 PM, Blogger Vibha said...

lovely story and a lovely review of that.

At 7:24 PM, Blogger sathish said...

Reminded me of Chipko movement. It would be nice to have a simple children's book on that too, isn't it?

Lovely review as always.

At 2:43 AM, Blogger Kay said...

You know, sheels... the lines from the declaration of Independence has been reverberating on my mind for a few days now - If you see something wrong and you have the ability to take action, then you have the responsibility to take action.

Wangari is one such person who took action. So proud of her! Thanks for sharing.


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