Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wangari's Trees of Peace

Wangari's Trees of Peace
A True Story from Africa

by Jeanette Winter

Ages 4-8

"The Earth was naked.
For me the mission was to try to cover it with green."
- Wangari Maathai, Environmentalist and winner of Nobel Peace Prize (2004)


What is peace? It is a hard concept for my five year old to fathom. Peace is living in harmony with oneself, one's neighbors, one's environment. Peace is acting kindly towards all beings, respectful and nurturing, not destroying mindlessly. Not acting violently wreaking damage that we can't repair, but acting with love, tolerance, and empathy.

In African tradition, a tree is a symbol of peace.

The book is about the life of Wangari Maathai, a brilliant student from Kenya who won the Kennedy Scholarship to pursue her studies in America, returned to Kenya to attend University of Nairobi, and became the first woman from East Africa to earn a Ph.D. 

When she returned to Kenya, Wangari was shocked to see the lush green trees destroyed to give way to new buildings. The effects of deforestation were drastic enough to jolt her into action. In 1977, on World Environment Day, she started the Green Belt Movement Kenya, with a simple goal of getting the greenery back in her backyard by planting nine seedlings.

She enlisted women from her community, village, to plant more seedlings, started a nursery, even paid women if their seedlings survived and established themselves for over three months. For many of these women, this is the first salary they earned, for doing what they normally would have done.

The clear-cutting leading to desertification, bringing along with it erosion and lack of firewood made life more challenging and tedious, especially for women who had to walk miles to gather a few sticks of firewood for daily needs.

Soon the word spread like wind traveling through leaves, and women in other villages, towns and cities were planting seedlings fighting against the continued cutting. Wangari tries to protect these mighty trees and gets put in jail for being a troublemaker. She doesn't wilt, she stands tall.

Her fight against the denuding of Earth inspires many others to spring to action. Soon the greenery is restored enough to make a difference all over Kenya. The world hears of Wangari's relentless campaign to bring the green back to Kenya, to reestablish the symbol of peace that was indiscriminately ravaged.

The illustrations are stark, colorful and complement the text well. And the book itself is published in recycled paper.

While the story of her life is simplified in this presentation, the fact that one person can make a difference, can effect a dramatic change, comes across loud and clear. She did not have to plant all the thousands of trees herself, but, through her actions, leadership, vision, dedication and perseverance, she managed to inspire others to take charge and do the needful, do the right thing.

 "Who was cutting down the trees?" was her first question and it was hard for the five year old to understand who exactly the "government men" were and why they could cut down trees when Wangari tried to protect the trees.

However, the page showing Wangari beaten by the policeman and thrown in jail did disturb my daughter a bit, especially the drops of blood trickling from her forehead. But, a subsequent discussion managed to ease her mind enough to get past it and reconcile it by stating that the policeman should have apologized to her for being so mean and hurtful, and promised never to do that again.

The Author's Note mentions that true to her passion, the first act Wangari did when she heard about winning the Nobel Peace Prize was to plant a Nandi flame tree at the base of Mount Kenya.

On this International Day of Peace (Sept 21), as we ask ourselves, "what does peace mean to me?" and explore this topic with our kids, we can share one aspect of it via Wangari Maathai's life and her words in her acceptance speech:

"We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own - indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder".

10 comments:

Vibha said...

Read it on your blog. Really liked the story and your review. Thanks Sheela.

Sheela said...

Thanks, Vibha, it is always nice to read your comments!

Meera Sriram said...

Beautiful! R takes an extra moment of silence whenever I say its a true story, I should read this to her. I will.

ChoxBox said...

Going on my wish-list right away Sheels.

Unfortunately we are witnesses to many majestic trees in this city being chopped off all over the place, so this book will be related to big time..

ranjani.sathish said...

What a beautiful story Sheela ! Would loved to get this book and read to both the kids.

sandhya said...

Echoing Chox. My daughter A was even wondering why the trees cannot be removed completely roots and all and re-planted somewhere else!

Praba said...

S - Read this book post-your-review while shelving at my daughter's school library. Noticed it has been selected for the Virginia Readers' Choice list - a program for schools the state to encourage reading the best in children's literature. My job was also put colorful stickers on all of this year's VA readers based on their reading level, and I put a pink sticker on Wangari's, based on the instructions. It was very gratifying. :)

I hadnt read your review until today and to see you have mentioned the illustration of drops of blood,very interesting. I did pause there to think what my four year old would make of it.

My favorite part - word spread like wind traveling through leaves...and one more place where the author captures the idea very imaginatively. (unlike the cliched - wildfire and such! :))

Thanks for a great great pick! :)

Sheela said...

Meera/Ranjani: true stories seem to have a greater impact with Ana too... every night she asks me to share a "true story of when I was little".

Choxie/Sandhya: yeah, and the thing that stuck in Ana's head in this book is, "if we have to cut trees for our use, why can't we grow more in its place right away?", much like A's uprooting and replanting.

P: yeah, I liked the words "wind traveling through leaves", and couldn't help italicizing and quoting it in the post... beating with a hefty stick was a disturbing image for sure, but, gave us a reason to take about such things...

Liz said...

Thanks for sharing this wonderful story....

sandhya said...

Picked up her autobiography 'Unbowed' recently, Sheela, and am looking forward to reading it soon as I can. Thank you so much for bringing the story of this woman to us.

This remarkable woman passed away on Sunday, 25th Sept 2011 in Nairobi. May she rest in peace!

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