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Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner who died a few weeks ago must have been smiling down on the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners, all of them mothers, and heroines for peace and justice from environments that are usually so hostile to women’s success.   Like them, Wangari’s was an unlikely story of triumph.

Wangari was born a typical little girl in a Kenyan village, who spent her days fetching firewood and water for her large family.  She was expected to grow up like her mother – one of four wives, illiterate and subservient to her husband.

Thanks to opportunities to pursue education she escaped the tragic fate of so many women in Africa; but severe hardship visited her after her three children were born.  While they were young, her husband abandoned the family, purportedly stating she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control."  When she criticized the judge ruling in favor of her husband during divorce proceedings, he sentenced her to a six-month jail term – the first of her many prison stays for speaking out.

Around this time she started encouraging tree planting among village women.  With diligent, patient stewardship this grew into a worldwide movement, and she became the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.  Her story demonstrates the amazing potential among those who might otherwise have been pitied as tragic statistics.  With some basic opportunities, stories of perseverance, courage, dignity and triumph can replace those of desperation and calamity.  We have it in us.

I wrote about Professor Maathai for the Million Moms Challenge and shared her telling the poignant story of the hummingbird HERE, where she shows how mighty even the frailest among us can be in the face of overwhelming obstacles; repeating to the nay-sayers:  “I am doing the best I can.”

Wangari Maathai tells the hummingbird story

 

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Homa S. Tavangar is the author of Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World.

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