Wangari Maathai (1 April 1940 – 25 September 2011) grew up in the green highlands of Kenyan. When she returned from studying college in the US she discovered that her lush homeland was being destroyed by deforestation which caused water and food shortages, malnutrition, and disappearing wildlife. She began to educate others to care for the land and re-plant the forests and they called her Mama Miti, “Mother of Trees.” Ms Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which empowered woman around Kenya to help take back their land, planting tree by tree.
For her compassion and efforts she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She was the first African woman and environmentalist to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Here are resources you can use to teach your children about this inspirational, remarkable woman, and her plight to save her country’s landscape. She shows us that one person truly can save the world!
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Begin by reading Wangari Maathai’s biography with your children.
Seeds of Change: Planting a Path To Peace, by Sonia Lynn Sadler is an excellet introduction for kids ages 7-11. Not only does this book tell the journey of Wangari Maathai from Kenya, to the US to study biology, and back to travel throughout Kenya planting trees; it also sends a positive message to girls everywhere about determination, strength, and gender equality. My favorite passages:
“Not many native women become scientists,” they told her. “I will.”
In college, many of Wangari’s science professors were women. From them she learned that a woman could do anything she wanted to, even it it hadn’t been done before.
“We might not change the big world but we can change the landscape of the forest,” she said.
Another biography is Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai, by Claire A. Nivola. In beautiful watercolors and simple text, this book tells the same story as the previous biography, perhaps for a slightly younger audience. It does not include details about her arrest, but does talk a bit more about her journey around Kenyan educating others about planting trees. Both books are wonderful and can be used in tandem to showcase Wangari Maathai and her incredible work.
After reading the stories, talk about cause and effect. Have the students make a chart and fill in the missing causes and effects. Another option is to have them cut apart and then match the causes and effects. Here are some you may include:
|Wangari’s mother and grandmother teach her that her ancestors rest in the trees’ shade||she loves nature and vows to protect the sacred trees|
|Wangari’s brother teachers her what he learns at school; her parents see that she is smart and a hard worker.||they decide to send her to school, though not many girls ever learn to read|
|Wangari was an excellent student; she wanted to become a biologist. Her teachers teach her that a woman can do anything they set their minds to||she travels to the US, and successful becomes a woman scientist|
|The government sells a lot of land to big companies. They cut down forests for timber and clear land for coffee plantations.||the trees are chopped down, erosion carries away the fertile soil, the water in the streams dries up. The land is destroyed and many people go hungry.|
|Wangari travels around Kenya, teaching people to plant trees.||Millions of trees are planted. Birds and animals return to the forests. Wangari’s home is green again.|
|Some businesses get angry that the trees are more important than their business.||They pay a police officer to put her in jail.|
|Wangari realizes that she needs more support, and begins to travel the world to spread her message.||More people listen to her message. She is elected to Kenya’s parliament, and continued to plant trees.|
|The world recognizes her hard work.||Wangari wins the Nobel Peace Prize.|
Talk about Wangari Maathai’s organization, “The Greenbelt Movement.” They have planted over 40 million trees all over Africa. Watch this video as you fly over the tree planting sites and view the saplings in 3D in this tour, narrated by Wangari Maathai.
Talk about how one person was able to change their environment. How can kids get involved to help make their world a better place? Brainstorm ways that we can protect our Earth, use less resources, and reduce our waste. An obvious activity would be to plant a tree- in Wangari’s honor!
For further information, see this video about life and the Greenbelt Movement:
To learn about another, modern-day shero, check out Human Rights Lawyer Christie Edwards! Ms. Edwards has worked globally on international human rights, international humanitarian law, international development policy, and gender issues for over 15 years.