Professor Wangari Maathai died last week. I met her once, and was very much taken with her enthusiastic approach to life. She was then well into her 60s but looked years younger. Her achievements are well known, thanks to her winning the Nobel Prize, and she was the sort of person who appeals to many across the political spectrum: a woman, an African woman as well, a feminist and an ecologist, quite apart from being highly articulate and intelligent. This is reflected in generous obituaries in both the Telegraph and the Guardian, which you can read here and here.
Both obituaries mention that Wangari was educated by nuns. In fact, the Loreto nuns who in those days ran the Limuru Girls High School. Most of the nuns who taught her are now dead, but on the occasion that I met Wangari one of them was present, a very old Sister called Sister Colombiere, and Wangari greeted her with great affection, and she mentioned that much of her campaigning spirit came from the example she had imbibed from the nuns.
So many of us have been educated by nuns, and those good Sisters did a pretty good job with a lot of us. Wangari Maathai’s career is just one of many in which they can take pride. Not of course that they ever blow their own trumpets, but given that is the case, could I just blow it for them? Kudos to the Irish Sisters of Loreto, who did such good work in Kenya, and who continue to do such good work in Kenya. And kudos to all those other orders of nuns working in remote areas or the slums of Nairobi, bringing hope to thousands of people.
The other thing to note about Wangari Maathai is that her Catholicism and her tree-planting were not pulling in opposite directions. There are lots of us Catholics who are devoted to ecological issues, particularly in Kenya. Nor is this a new thing. Some of the pioneers in gardening, beekeeping, farming and forestry in Europe were Benedictine monks. The standard-bearer of animal welfare is of course St Francis of Assisi. As for Kenya itself, the first coffee bush was planted by the White Fathers, and the nicest gardens are often in and around religious houses. So, forgive me if I simply do not get those people who paint the Catholic Church as the enemy of ecology. Catholics like Wangari Maathai stand at the forefront of the ecological movement. It is rather sad, though, that few people really care about this.
Wangari’s was a great life. I am sad she has died, and I will pray for her soul, but I feel enormous hope at the thought of all she achieved, and I know that there are lots more out there like her. If there are any Kenyan women reading this, I am sure they feel inspired by her, as I did once, and still do.