Friday, March 2, 2012

Writing about Wangari Maathai

March 2 - Today's post provided by Donna Jo Napoli

Writing about Wangari Maathai

By Donna Jo Napoli
January 2012

          One spring I got a phone call from the editor Paula Wiseman at Simon & Schuster.  She said something like, “I want you to write a book about Wangari Maathai.”  I said, “Who?”  She said, “Go look her up.”  Well, the conversation may have been a little longer than that, but it was short.

          Over the following weeks I did nothing but read articles about and both articles and books by Wangari Maathai.  And I told Paula, “Expect it,” and I began writing the book MAMA MITI.

          Wangari Maathai was born in 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya.  In that time and place not many people got an education, and those who did were mostly male.  But Wangari Maathai studied in the United States and in Germany, and then returned to Kenya, where she became the first woman in central and eastern Africa to earn a Ph.D.  She taught in veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi and soon was the head of the veterinary medicine faculty – the first woman to head a university department in Kenya. It was natural, then, for her to get involved with the work of the National Council of Women of Kenya.

          Dr. Maathai studied animals and nature, and this work made her a leader in the fields of ecology, sustainable development, natural resources, and wildlife.  But it also made her recognize enormous problems that Kenya was facing.  Timber factories were deforesting Kenya, and in the process polluting the air and water.

          It is hard to overstate the importance of trees to life on earth.  Trees supply people and animals with fruits.  Dead branches make wonderful fuel for hearth fires.  The leaves of some trees are good fodder for some animals.  The leaves of other trees are medicinal and can be used to cure illness in animals.  The leaves of still other trees can be wrapped around bananas to ripen them.  Trees with thorns can make good protective barriers against dangerous animals.  Some trees grow straight and their trunks yield good lumber and poles for building homes.  The branches of trees can be used as stakes in gardens when you grow vines.  The roots of some trees are natural filters of the rain water, so that the water is clean by the time it reaches the water table under the ground and flows out into streams.  The uses of trees go on and on.  And on top of all that, trees can have beautiful flowers and can provide shade on hot sunny days and break the force of the wind on cold blustery days.  You can climb a tree to see far, or simply for the joy of it.

Dr. Maathai had grown up with a respect for the many roles trees can play.  In 1976 she started the Green Belt Movement.  This is a grassroots organization that aims for peaceful coexistence between people and nature, largely by planting trees.  Dr. Maathai began by encouraging village women to action, but over time more and more people joined the movement and today it is a massive movement that has planted millions and millions of trees throughout Africa. 

This work was not easy for Dr. Maathai.  She began it as a single voice speaking out against the destructive acts of certain large companies and against governments that allowed these large companies to exploit the land and the people.  That took enormous courage.  As she gained respect and influence, she became a force to reckon with, and she was imprisoned for her political activities.  But Amnesty International waged a letter-writing campaign, which led to her being freed.  Rather than walk away from it all, her courage only grew, and she continued her political organizing.  She was imprisoned repeatedly through the years, but her work was so obviously for the good of the people that they couldn’t keep her in prison. 

Wangari Maathai in Nairobi, Kenya
28 August 2006
Photo by Fredrick Onyango
CC BY 2.0
In 2004 Wangari Maathai was honored for her work by being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  She was the first African woman to win this award – the most prestigious award in the world.  Dr. Maathai died in September 2011.  She was a hero of her times, intellectually, politically, and spiritually.  She believed that ordinary people could work together to accomplish extraordinary things.  Given enough people cooperating, no task was too huge.  Dr. Maathai’s life is proof of her belief.  I invite you to go onto the Internet and see and listen to Dr. Maathai tell the story of the hummingbird – a story she heard in Japan, and that she told repeatedly at public lectures.  This address shows her telling the story in March 2007.

          I chose to write a book not about Wangari Maathai’s life, but about what I see as one of the most important messages she had for the world.  If you see a problem and you do the very best you can to solve it – and if all of us do that – then together we can make a difference.  We can be powerful – even against strong economic forces.  This is an essential message for children, in particular, because children are often seen as the least powerful members of society.  But a child can plant a tree.  A child can take responsibility for our environment.  A child can become the custodian of the globe.  We know that, thanks to Wangari Maathai.

Editor's Note:
Author and linguist, Donna Jo Napoli, "writes for all ages, from picture books through young adult books." Her awards are too numerous to mention but may be viewed on her website, .
copyright Donna Jo Napoli


  1. I will be featuring your book in my Women's History Month storytime later in the month. I'll also be showing this wonderful video of Wangari Maathai telling a fable, "I Will be a Hummingbird." We all can be the hummingbird. Thanks so much.

  2. Thanks for the post on Wangari Maathai. You've broadened my world. --Ruth Feldman

  3. I chose Mama Miti for a first-grade classroom in a volunteer read-aloud program. The story was simply and powerfully told, and the bright illustrations were so attractive!

    Thank you for sharing the fuller story of Wangari Maathai.

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  5. This lyrical & beautifully illustrated story from Donna Jo Napoli & Kadir Nelson, about Dr. Wangari Maathai, a village peacemaker & Nobel prize-winner who rallied her native Kenyans, is one of the stories I have appreciated sharing with 1st & 2nd graders as a volunteer reader.

    The essay from Donna Jo is a good story in itself, about choosing a theme in writing a biography & about an author's entry point into a book project. Thanks for this post.

  6. Thank you for sharing the story behind MAMA MITI. I'll definitely be making use of this book in my classroom.

  7. So glad to learn about Mama Miti. We just don't seem to learn of strong women if they don't live in the U.S. which is such a shame!

    Pragmatic Mom

  8. While I was weeding my biography section, my clerk pulled out Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai and suggested pitching it since no one knew Wangari Maathai. I seized this title and shared why marketing, displaying, and knowing your collection was so important. Now I can share that title with yours and hope to inspire others with her story. I would never have known if I hadn't read your post. Thanks. Diane