Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai died this past week at 71, of ovarian cancer. In the early 1970s, saw the Sahara desert creeping south into her beloved homeland, Kenya. In the previous 100 hundred years, the forests had shrunk to less than five percent of what they once were. She knew that Kenya’s entire ecosystem was threatened, with devastating results. So she took action.
She has been a beacon of hope and a shining example of what one person can do to awaken our world. She has forever changed the lives of millions. She is a hero of mine, not just because of the profound impact she made here with earth, but because of her dedication to do one thing – make the choice to act. When I read articles online and listened to the news on TV, I found it interesting that so many of the obituaries missed this fact. Listen to what the New York Times said:
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.
While there is truth in this, I think they missed the point. Maathai didn’t wear many hats – to me she wore one hat. Everything she did – from empowering women and educating them to protect and reclaim their country, to reducing climate change while helping to feed and employ some of the poorest people around her, or calling for justice everywhere – it was and is all one hat.
The gift Maathai left me was to remember that topics such as environmentalism, economics, politics and gender justice, poverty, and spiritual fulfillment are not separate things. For you cannot act in one area without impacting the rest of the world. These issues are inextricably interrelated, interdependent, and are different facets of one profoundly interconnected whole. It simply isn’t possible to make sustainable progress on one of them while ignoring the others.
For many of us it is easier to see these things as separate. It’s easier to see same sex marriage rights and deforestation as two kinds of caring. They’re not. Maathai saw the wholeness, the interconnectedness of all life where most only see pieces. What she embodied so beautifully is that in order to protect forests or to provide equal rights for all, a transformation was needed in the mind. She knew that when we, as ordinary people living our ordinary lives, make the internal shift to recognizing our oneness with ALL life – as overwhelming as that may sound– then we will realize our power.
I live an ordinary life, a small, but important life. Every day I practice to make the shift Maathai was calling for. Every day I practice to become more aware of what is in front of me, to see the impact I make on all life,. This is the practice of wearing just one hat.
Finally, one of the ironies of this whole story is my connection to Wangari through our love of Kenya. I share this closing story with you. It is another woman’s journey with life in Kenya that awakened me to all that I am, can be and can do.
He named her Wanjiru, Chiru for short. When she first arrived and was given the name she didn’t know why he had chosen it. In time, though, she would come to learn its significance among the Kikuyu people she lived with. She would cherish it, and even 20 years later, mourn the loss of hearing voices speak the word, “Chiru.”
She lived in Kiambu, a tiny, rural village in Kenya, about 10 miles from Nairobi. A stranger, immersed in a life wholly different from the one she had been living in the U.S. This was a third-world country with the poverty, sickness and political upheaval that belies the clash of the western world with centuries of tribal culture. This country, these people, like Chiru, struggled to know themselves and to make sense and survive in an incomprehensible world.
She knew she would only be there for a short while, so she didn’t put much energy into building relationships with anyone. As a child she moved around quite a bit, and simply learned, “Don’t get close to these people, you’ll be leaving.” She knew how this one would play out.
Wanjiru, or Chiru, lived with a wonderful couple, Mama Dani, her husband Washington, and their 5 boys. The youngest son, Kairuri, took an immediate liking to Chiru, and was glued to her hip whenever she was around. In the words of Forrest Gump, “Chiru and Kairuri was like peas and carrots.” At first he was like an annoying little brother, but in time he became like her son. He unwittingly had crept into her heart and pitched his tent there. Even today, when she closes her eyes she can see the face of this 8 year old – a bright, big smile with eyes of liquid black ink holding the innocence of his young age, and a hint of wisdom and tiredness from a tough life already lived.
She helped with cooking, cleaning, taking care of the boys, and daily activities at the local outdoor market. She frequently went on trips around the country as part of her studies. To safari parks to study wildlife, the coast to learn about the history of Islam in East Africa, excavating at archaeological sites and Rwanda to be with the Mountain Gorillas.
In time, with every journey away from the village, she found herself longing to return to it, to the people, the boys, to Washington. Upon her arrival he immediately took a liking to her, unlike any she had never experienced. How strange she thought, to go halfway around the world to find someone that loved her just as she was. He expected very little, and gave all he had. He actually cared about her, her thoughts, her life, what she wanted, what she enjoyed. He wasn’t a saint by any means, and yet for her, to have a protector was a shocking, unexpected gift of a lifetime.
She found there was only one way to live in this family and culture: survival first. Survival meant everyone depending on everyone else. There was only the right here and right now. Life could be short-lived so each day became an exercise in taking action based on what was needed today and hopefully tomorrow. Finding and preparing the next meal, tending to children, sitting together and laughing, going to the village market, making clothes, getting water, cleaning… the simple things that most people find as annoying “have-tos” in their day. Yet for these people, my family, there was a sacredness in preparing meals. There was something holy about walking a few miles to get food at market each day, or sitting in a circle with 4 generations of women singing and telling stories as they washed clothes.
So Chiru found that she couldn’t be around them without belonging to them and they belonging to her. Chiru created a connection with her village that was simple and pure with no agenda. There was nothing about this life that was romantic – it was a hard life. They didn’t know what it meant to get upset about a flat tire, or being kept late by a boss, or to be stuck in traffic. They knew that 7 out of 10 of their babies would die. They knew that rain for the crops was not a guarantee. They knew that dinner tonight did not guarantee dinner tomorrow night.
Yet Chiru became the beloved daughter in this family and village. She loved deeply and was loved in return. She spent hours talking about her life, and listening to theirs. She sang songs that were as old as the culture that she now called home. She danced many nights in celebration of their gods and their women.
Chiru discovered pieces of herself she didn’t even know had been missing. She found solace with these strangers who had become her closest allies. She found within herself a wise woman, mother, wife, sister, an adventurer, little girl, a dancer, and so many others, but most importantly, she found that place of grace that remains untouched in each of us. That place that connects us to all life – it is the whole world. It is eternity and this present moment. It is life and death. It is suffering and joy.
Every once in a while I realize I haven’t thought about Chiru for a while. Then I look in the mirror, smile and there she is. I see my family, my friends and my husband, all half a world away in time and space. But mostly what I see is a village I left long ago that still lives in every corner of me that taught me to be every character that I am, to do the next right thing in front of me – to take action for the wholeness of life. One brief moment at a time, while wearing just one hat.