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Wangari Maathai Read By Melinda Gates

About the Episode

When lakes started to dry up and streams seemed to disappear, a woman decided to bring the forest back and planted a million trees. Wangari Maathai is the founder of the Green Belt movement in Africa and the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize. In this episode, you will learn about one of the most inspiring activists and environmentalists of our time.

This episode is narrated by American philanthropist Melinda Gates.

Listen On:


Melinda Gates:
Once upon a time, there was a girl who planted millions of trees. Her name was Wangari. Wangari grew up in Kenya, her home was a place full of plants and trees where colorful birds built their nests. Her valley was dotted with bananas, sugar cane and yams. Every day Wangari accompanied her family’s goats and sheep to the pasture. While they graze lazily she got her hands in the chili stream, tried to
count the jelly frog eggs, and catch the silvery tadpoles who wiggle through the current. During the rain season, Wangari ran outside and stood happily with her mouth open to drink the water coming from the sky.
Melinda Gates:
During the winter, the fog set so thick that she played hide and seek with her siblings, but in plain sight. In the summer, Wangari laid belly up by the stream and stared at the white creamy clouds. They were shaped just like the animals that lived around the village. Elephants, antelopes, monkey’s. One evening around sunset, she was walking home with a basket full of nuts when she heard rustling in the trees ahead of her. She froze and held her breath. A leopard was crossing her path. She looked at its long tail camouflaged on the dirt path. And as the leopard turned his head towards her, she felt her stomach tighten with fear.
Melinda Gates:
I’m Melinda Gates, and this is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. A fairytale podcast about the rebel women that inspire us. This week Wangari Maathai.
Melinda Gates:
Wangari’s encounter with the leopard only lasted a few seconds, but they felt like hours. She was about to run away, but then she remembered something her mom always told her. We named you Wangari to be as fierce as an ingari. In her language, ingari was the word for leopard and where her name came from. She looked right back at the animal and proudly hinted a nod. Slowly the leopard turned its head back and walked away. So did Wangari, she made it home in a flash. That night, she felt proud of herself. “I am Wangari.” She thought. Like the leopard, I know no fear.
Melinda Gates:
Now that she’d stared down a leopard. Wangari felt she could do anything. The valley was her kingdom and she was its adventurous sovereign. There was only one thing Wangari would never dare doing. Using fig trees for firewood. Her mother had taught her not to take any of the dry wood those trees shed around or break any of the branches. She could eat the fruits, hide under the large, leafy branches and enjoy their shade. But otherwise fig trees had to be left alone. “We don’t use them. We don’t cut them down. We don’t burn them.” Her mother said. “Why not?” Wangari asked. “It’s a sacred plant.” Her mom explained. “It’s the tree of God.”
Melinda Gates:
Wangari’s mother always had answers until one day, her brother Indaritu asked her a question she had no answers for. “Why doesn’t Wangari go to school?” At the time, it was uncommon for girls to get an education. Especially in rural families.
School was expensive. Girls were needed to help around the house. That was what Wangari’s mother had done as a child. But these did not feel as sufficient explanations for not sending her daughter to school. So instead of answering, her mother thought it through. “Wangari is a girl.” So what? That didn’t mean she couldn’t study. So she found the money to pay for Wangari’s school and Wangari’s
new adventure began. She was better at school than her brothers had been. Her family decided that she should go to a boarding school and get a better education. A school away from her mother and family? Would she feel lonely or bored?
Melinda Gates:
It was a big, scary change, but it was thrilling too. Like walking through the forest at dusk. Wangari packed her three dresses in a small wooden box and off she went. Boarding school was fun and Wangari became the best student of her class. After primary school, she was accepted into a good high school outside Kenya’s biggest city, Nairobi. In high school, she thought, “I will learn more about chemistry and biology. There’s so much I don’t know about plants and animals.” Wangari graduated high school with flying colors and rushed home to enjoy the summer. Before she even had the time to hug her mother, her friends and her neighbors rushed to welcome her, overwhelming her with questions. “What will you do now? Will you live in the village? Will you be a teacher or nurse?” Their excitement made her proud, but it confused her too. Suddenly, she got quiet. Not really knowing what to say. She did not want to be a nurse or a teacher. She wanted to study biology.
Melinda Gates:
But was smart enough? No woman she knew had ever become a biologist or anything other than a teacher or a nurse, in fact. What if she just couldn’t make it? She shook her head so that her doubts would fall out of it. Why not? “I’m going to
continue studying.” Wangari said firmly. “Continue studying? What’s there to continue?” “Science. I’ll go to university in Nairobi.” “But girls can’t study science.” “Why not?” Just like her mom a few years back, people didn’t have a good answer for that. Still, they insisted. “What if you don’t pass the admission test?” “Of course I will pass.” Wangari replied with such conviction that everyone believed her and indeed she did pass. She got a scholarship to study biology in the United States.
Melinda Gates:
It was her longest and farthest journey yet. America was so different from Kenya that at the beginning, she could barely believe she had not flown to the moon. The cities were loud and bright at night and people drove everywhere. She almost got run over so many times. The summers were so humid she struggled to sleep. The winters were so cold her eye sockets hurt, but she made it through. When she took the same flight on the way back, six years had passed. She was a woman with a graduate degree in science. Wangari continued her studies in Germany and Kenya. She was the first woman in all of East and Central Africa to get a PhD.
Melinda Gates:
Within a few years, she was a university professor. She met a man she loved and they married. They had three children, a son and two daughters. Meanwhile, she became chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya. And she decided to run for office to continue her activism. Her husband was a politician too, but he didn’t like the idea. “You’ll have to resign from your job to run for election.” He said. “Then I will, the people will vote for me.” “But what if they don’t?” He replied. “Of course they will.” She said without hesitation. He was not so sure and he didn’t like that she wouldn’t follow his advice.
Melinda Gates:
On the other hand, Wangari didn’t want to be told what to do. Eventually they decided to separate and their children went to live with their father. Wangari quit her job, she knew people would vote for her. But shortly before the elections, she received a court order that said she was not allowed to run. “Why not?” Wangari asked. She was confused. The court gave her some procedural reason, but she
knew the truth. Her political enemies didn’t want her to get to parliament. So they had bribed the court. It was unfair, but there was nothing Wangari could do. “I shouldn’t have resigned.” Wangari told the Dean disappointed when she went back to the university. “Indeed.” He replied. He was not going to give her the job back. “But I don’t have anywhere to go. I live on university property.” She explained. “I’m afraid you will have to leave.” He replied sternly.
Melinda Gates:
She suddenly found herself with no job, no money, no family, no home. Wangari was scared she had ruined it all. So she decided to focus on the one thing that she still had. She was still the head of the women’s council. And now for the first time, rural women and their problems could have her undivided attention and they needed it because they were in trouble. “We have to walk further and further from our villages to find firewood.” They told her. “Streams are drying up. It’s hard to get food for ourselves and for our children.” In those same places Wangari had grown up surrounded by plentiful crops and she had never known hunger. “What has changed?” She wondered. She looked around to find an answer and all of a sudden her mom came to mind. The fig trees. The fig trees were missing and so were all the others.
Melinda Gates:
Through her studies, Wangari had discovered her mom was right. The fig trees were sacred because they brought water to the village. In fact, all trees did. Their strong roots reached all the way to underground water repositories. Water traveled up the
roots and when it found an opening in the soil, gush. It sprang right out of it. The problem was that the trees had been cut down. First by the British colonizers and then by the local government and replaced by fields and farms. Wangari knew what to do. “We need to bring the forest back.” She told the women. “A forest is just too big. We can’t possibly plant it.” “Why not?” Asked Wangari. “We just need to get started.” “So how many trees should we plant?” They asked. “A few millions should do.” Said Wangari. The women laugh. “We can’t even count to one million.” “Then we will plant more trees than we can count.” She replied with confidence.
Melinda Gates:
She seemed so sure about it, that the women looked at each other and smiled. Then they turned to her and said, “Do you really think we can bring the forest back?” The women asked. “Why not?” Wangari replied. So they began planting seeds in cans. When the saplings were big enough, they put them in the ground and then started again with new seeds. “This is our land.” Wangari said. “We must take
care of it.” At the beginning, it was only a few women. Most people didn’t take them seriously and made fun of them, but they kept going. Soon enough, that crazy project had become a movement. The Green Belt Movement. Little by little hundreds, then thousands more women, and some men to joined. It was a tree planting revolution. The government tried to fight back. It didn’t want people to
reclaim their land, but the women kept going. Trees became a symbol of democracy, power and freedom.
We are called to assist in the art, to heal our woods. In the process heal our own. Indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder.
Melinda Gates:
The Green Belt Movement took over Kenya and then spilled over to other countries. More than 40 million trees were planted all over the world. Wangari was awarded the Nobel prize for peace, she was the first African woman to receive it. In this very moment, somebody somewhere is planting a tree because of her. Perhaps that tree will one day be part of a whole forest. Why not?

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