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One woman’s lasting legacy

Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan activist focused on conservation, community development and women’s rights. In 1977 she started the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization encouraging women to take agency in their lives by planting trees. As women in the program grow and plant trees, they generate income and receive training in various trades. Simultaneously, their efforts help conserve and restore their local environment.

I was a US Peace Corps Agroforestry Extension volunteer in Kenya from 1998-2000. Doing Agroforestry Extension work in Kenya was both profoundly rewarding and incredibly hard, and being a woman in Kenya was a challenge in itself. The social position of women was deeply ingrained and rarely included decision-making authority, especially if there were men around. By the time I arrived, decades after Dr. Maathai’s work began, women’s groups were normal, and had the opportunity to work with a few women’s groups that were entirely women. 

One of my most memorable outcomes was a story told by a Kipsigi woman who was a member of a local widow’s group. I’d recently talked with them about agroforestry, and she shared that after our meeting she and the group decided to raise seedlings for their farms. They sent their kids up local trees to harvest seeds, then planted, nurtured and grew those seeds until they were ready to plant. They were able to sell the remaining seedlings for cash, thus adding to the family’s income. I never felt comfortable getting credit for any of the work these women did; I feel like I showed up and drank chai. I suspect I was just a little spark in the fire Dr. Wangari lit for women and trees in Kenya and that her hard work, dedication, persistence and passion enabled those women to grow more trees and help support their families. 

I was inspired to write this post by a recent article about Dr. Maathai written for the Minnesota Women's Woodland Network (MNWWN). On this International Women’s Day, I encourage you to learn more about the work being done by and on behalf of women, across the world through the Green Belt Movement and in our own backyard with the MNWWN. 

I never met Dr. Maathai when I was in Kenya, but years later I attended the Society of American Foresters meeting during which she was the keynote speaker, moving me to happy tears. A part of me delights in the thought that Dr. Maathai’s work and ideas might also inspire those of us so far away in the cold northern climes of Minnesota.

Angela Gupta is an Extension forestry educator based in Rochester, Minnesota.

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