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Difference Maker

A Nobel Peace Prize winner finds spiritual values in planting trees

Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, who founded the Green Belt Movement, says spiritual values are the key to healing ourselves and our environment.

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Maathai attributes her ideas as having come from "the Source" or, in a Christian context, God. But listening for ideas must also be accompanied by "an attitude that allows you to take advantage of that awakening," she writes in "Replenishing the Earth." "This entails keeping your mind, eyes, and ears open, so that when an idea arrives you'll be ready for it."

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Maathai is critical of some aspects of Christianity's influence on Africa – especially theologies that suggest suffering is inevitable and that relief will come only in the next world – a view that can lead to resignation and defeatism. "I don't think God puts us here on this planet to suffer or to do nothing so that we suffer," she says.

But she's heartened that many religious traditions, including Christianity, teach that humans should be good stewards of the environment.

"People of faith ought to be in the forefront protecting this creation," says Maathai, who has also written a book on her home continent ("The Challenge for Africa") and a memoir ("Unbowed"). "I'm glad to see that even the pope has come up front to make statements in favor of the environment," she says.

In 1971, Maathai received a PhD in anatomy from the University of Nairobi, becoming the first woman from East or Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree.

She's now back in her homeland of Kenya beginning work on the Wan­gari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environ­mental Studies at the University of Nairobi. "They want to call it after me, and I'm very flattered," she says. "They have given me 50 acres of land" on which to build.

Her institute will emphasize "learning by doing," she says, applying knowledge to real problems. "What Africa needs is people who are willing to get their fingers dirty and work with the people."

Planting trees is one way people connect with the natural world, she says. "For unless we see [nature], smell it, or touch it, we tend to forget it, and our souls wither," she writes in "Replenishing the Earth."

She continues to inspire others.

"Wangari Maathai is a unique presence on our planet," says Mary Evelyn Tucker, cofounder of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, in an e-mail. "She exudes love and joy in all she does. Her words and deeds manifest to us that Earth is a sacred community including humans, ecosystems, and all species....

"She reminds us that there is no lasting peace until we have peace with the Earth itself."

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