Dr. Maathai's neighborhood


Speaking Sunday evening to a capacity crowd at Rockefeller Chapel, Wangari Maathai received a standing ovation before she said a word. The Kenyan environmental activist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner came to Hyde Park, she said, with an urgent message: global peace depends on keeping the environment healthy. "Look through the world," she said, "and tell me one war we are fighting today that doesn't have to do with the access, control, and distribution of natural resources."

Born in rural Kenya, Maathai, 67, is a biologist and the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a doctorate. In the mid-1970s she began organizing Kenyan women—"In my part of the world," she explained, "they're the ones who deal with resources like water and food"—into what became the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots environmental organization that has helped Kenyan women plant, by Maathai's calculations, more than 30 million trees on farms, churchyards, and school grounds. In the last two decades, the Green Belt Movement has gone international. "The world is one," she said, citing in particular the problem of global warming. "We all live in this neighborhood."

Sponsored by the Chicago Humanities Festival (CHF), Maathai's talk was billed as an early glimpse at the two-week program, which runs October 27—November 11 and focuses on the environment. In addition, said CHF board member Karla Scherer and University President Robert J. Zimmer, who introduced Maathai, the talk demonstrated a strengthening partnership between the U of C and the festival, which will hold several events on campus and in Hyde Park.


Photos: Wangari Maathai argues that people need good governments to "allow them to protect the environment"; before and after Maathai's talk, listeners bought copies of her autobiography, Unbowed.

September 24, 2007