Baylor Tree-Planting Ceremony Honors Life of Nobel Peace Prize Winner
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When Baylor University First Lady Alice Starr and International Student Relations Coordinator Melanie Smith led the Baylor Women's Leadership Team to Kenya last summer, they were scheduled to meet with Professor Wangari Maathai, the first woman from Africa to win the Nobel Peace Prize. However, Wangari - founder of the Green Belt Movement and a former member of the Kenyan Parliament - had been diagnosed with cancer and was unable to meet.
Although they couldn't see Wangari in person, the Baylor Women's Leadership Team was inspired by her vision of mobilizing community consciousness by using tree planting as an entry point for self-determination, equity, improved livelihoods and security, and environmental conservation.
As the team visited the Wangari Plantation and planted a tree in honor of Baylor Student Missions programs in Kenya, they could count themselves among the thousands of women who, through the Green Belt Movement, have planted more than 40 million trees on community lands including farms, schools and church compounds in Kenya.
"She kept her cancer quiet, not like the life she lived in a robust way to save the forest in Kenya and to fight for the rights of women and children in Kenya," Smith said.
Wangari passed away Sept. 25 in Nairobi after a "prolonged and bravely borne struggle" with cancer. A Requiem Mass to celebrate her life was held Oct. 14 in Nairobi. In lieu of flowers, her family asked that friends around the world honor the professor's life by planting a tree through the Green Belt Movement.
Baylor Honors Green Belt Founder
On the Baylor campus, Smith invited students from Africa, members of the African Student Association, and the U.S. students and professors who have traveled to Africa on mission trips to attend a tree planting Oct. 14 in honor of Wangari. The live oak tree, given by Carroll Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald Landscaping, was planted behind the Bobo Spiritual Life Center.
"Today is a dream come true to honor such a great lady, but sadly to do it at the time of her death," Smith said during a brief ceremony. "Green Belt says, 'As we mourn her passing, we dedicate this time to give tribute and celebrate her extraordinary life and contribution to the world. Professor Maathai was, like the hummingbird she spoke of so often, doing the best she could with what she had.'"
Alice Starr was unable to attend the tree planting but provided a touching memorial to Wangari, read by Smith: "This is a memorial tree to one of Africa's greatest female pioneers in the 20th and 21st centuries. Wangari Maathai saved Kenya from devastation by planting over 40 million trees with the help of an army of women, and she also changed the Kenyan government forever to include women in the cabinet who now receive equal pay to men serving in government positions. I love the fact that Wangari fought to save African people dying of hunger in the Sudan up to her last breath. She was truly a remarkable woman who will undoubtedly inspire thousands of others to carry on her legacy for saving communities from devastation."
Becky Kennedy, Baylor's director of missions, developed the university's relationship with Green Belt six years ago when she accompanied the first group of Baylor students to the plantation. Today, Kennedy can look outside her office window and view the campus tree that honors Wangari and her movement.
Although Kennedy was unable to attend the ceremony, Smith read a message from her: "'I had not heard about Wangari Maathai's passing until now. I am so sad to hear this news. She made such an incredible change in Kenya, especially for women leaders. I had the privilege to plant a tree in Kenya in memory of my mother who died the year before I visited Green Belt. I am sure today there is a tree named 'Dora' standing tall and proud just outside of Nairobi.'"
"Armed with a seedling..."
Also offering remarks in honor of Professor Wangari was Joseph Sang, a Baylor graduate student in geology from Nairobi. He described the opportunity to talk about the professor as a "most humbling privilege."
"As a young Kenyan, I am proud of this event today and this opportunity to share about a great woman, who H. E. the President of Kenya, Hon. Mwai Kibaki, said in the memorial service was an icon," Sang said. "Rarely does someone come to this world and want it to leave it better. Wangari Maathai saw the rivers of her village flowing in early years and desired to perpetually have them that way. She spent her life pursuing that with earnest and passion."
Adding that she was "armed with a seedling," Sang said Wangari and her Green Belt Movement had an impact on the local people who had no access to piped gas for cooking for instead planted trees as source of firewood and also as a source of income. "It impacted the vulnerable and the 'common' of the society," he said.
Sang spoke of Wangari's crusades for equal rights, for political prisoners unfairly incarcerated and against private developers who wanted to tear down a forest on the outskirts of Nairobi to build luxury residences. He described standing at the edge of that forest while working at a Nairobi research institution.
"The serenity and fresh air was different from the hassle and buzzing cars of the city. The small 'bear trails' in the forest makes it a jewel in the outskirts of Nairobi," he said. "This is the Karura forest that she stood...firmly to save in 1998."
Sang said he found colleagues from Kenya who spoke passionately about trees and their impact on the environment, radiating with energy as they mobilized people in the villages.
"They were working with Green Belt Movement. They believed in the vision of the Movement. They believe planting a tree is planting ideas," Sang said. "I learned that you can be near a great giant and not be one of them. Clearly I benefited from [Wangari's} efforts and indeed she influenced a whole generation. Her great works will continue through the people she influenced not only in Kenya but around the globe."
The service concluded with a prayer in French given Jeanne Samake, a native of Mali and sophomore biology major at Baylor.
Since 1977, GBM communities have planted more than 45 million trees in Kenya to increase national forest cover and restore essential ecosystems. As forest cover has decreased over the years, communities have suffered from severe crop failure and water shortages. GBM's community development programs that accompany tree-planting efforts have evolved to help women and their families address these basic needs at the grassroots level.
To date, GBM has planted trees in the Mount Kenya, Aberdares and Mau Complex areas. The next phase of planting will include planting in Mt. Elgon and Cherengani Hills. Together these five areas constitute the five "water towers" of Kenya, which are water catchment areas that provide more than 90 percent of Kenya's population with water.
In summer 2012, Baylor will send six mission groups to Kenya that concentrate on women's leadership, community development, medical/public health, social work, sports ministry and youth ministry. For more information, visit Baylor Missions.
About Baylor University
Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions.
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