by Katixa Mercier
“Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
I loathe that bumper sticker. I loathe it for the simple reason that it perpetuates the issue. By saying we—the well behaved—rarely make history not only condones one’s lack of research, but excuses it.
In my life, I have had the immense honor of being in the presence of women who have made history and many others who I know will. The current climate for political commentary so easily sends me into an anxiety-ridden bullet train to hell that I’d rather not indulge it; at least not today. Instead, I want to administer a solid dose of antidote that will hopefully quiet my hatred of that stupid bumper sticker and give us all some much-needed reprieve. With that, I present to you the story of an extraordinary woman I had the fortune of meeting: Wangari Maathai.
Maathai, in effect, is one of the women that dumb bumper sticker refers to: a woman who impacted the world and its history without starting a war or rendering herself a fool in the process. A scholar, activist, feminist and environmentalist, Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for a movement she started in 1977 called the Green Belt Movement, and, in the fall of 2008, our paths would cross.
In another life, I worked at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. A few times a week, lectures were held over the lunch hour in the principal auditorium, Grosvenor Hall. Explorers, journalists, photographers, and Nobel Laureates would grace our presence for a fifty-minute lecture. Periodically, I would assist in the set up and back-stage logistics for speakers my department had organized. I remember sitting in the green room when Maathai arrived.
She walked into the room so quietly. Her steps were barely audible, her gate fluid, and her presence majestic. She wore simple canvas shoes that were immediately forgotten as she removed her black overcoat and revealed a brightly patterned traditional Kenyan wrap, with tribal prints in hues of greens and yellow and a turban to match, punctuated by an adornment above her forehead that would lightly jingle has she turned her head.
It was as though a lioness had entered the room, and, rather than being frightened, I was in awe. She was calm and confident—I was absolutely intimidated. I was in the presence of someone who had impacted not only an entire country, but the entire world.
Her hand was rough and weathered as I collected her hand with both of mine and shook it so as to say, “thank you.” She smiled, and her entire body seemed to do so as well. I guided her to the stage and slipped into the wings to have a closer look.
The house lights dimmed and Maathai began to speak in a cadence of English I find so charming. The east-African rounding of vowels and hyper-pronunciation of e’s making her face smile, regardless of her content; longer words annunciated in a near staccato so as to ensure both proper delivery and emphasizing a point. But it was her tone that floors me to this day. Maathai quickly introduced herself, sped through her credentials and accomplishments, nearly dismissing them as irrelevant. When she arrived to the talking point she wanted to address, her speech slowed and her breath deepened. She chose her words with surgical precision to ensure that it was neither too complicated nor too simple.
Maathai proceeded to gently remind those in the audience—a packed house I might add—that feminism needn’t be about staging a coup d’état, pursuing a political career and entertaining an extreme to impact change. “It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.”
Her legacy was born out of necessity. In the 1970s, Nairobi was undergoing massive deforestation, leaving natives with increasingly difficult conditions to survive in. Moreover, in rural areas, women were walking farther for water and firewood, let alone food. Realizing that the burden was primarily on the shoulders of the women in these communities, she began by simply having conversations with them.
Naturally, she was met with apprehension. Maathai was not like the villagers and although they may not have known the extent of her (then) accomplishments, there was a social rift to overcome. Maathai was the first educated woman in Kenya to receive not just a college education, but a doctorate. The first mission to overcome was the social divide.
“African women in general need to know that it’s OK for them to be the way they are—to see the way they are as a strength and to be liberated from fear and silence.”
Over a series of conversations about how to ease the stress the impact of deforestation was having on their lives, Maathai realized that she was empowering them, simply by making them part of the decision-making process. The more conversations she had with them, the more they were uniting and willing to take action. Resources were tight, and formal educations weren’t prevalent in this community, so the solution had to be tangible. And then, it dawned on her: plant trees.
I realize it doesn’t sound terribly femme-centric, but this movement single-handedly changed the lives of Kenyan women by empowering them with the simple task of planting trees. Not by staging a coup. Not by taking to the streets and risking their lives. But by taking their power and planting a (literal) grassroots movement. To date, over 51 million trees have been planted. What started as an effort to help a community of women evolved into a humanitarian act the world would honor by awarding Maathai with the Noble Peace Prize in 2004.
Today, my little thing is sharing with you her story. Wangari Maathai was a well-behaved woman who did make history and her legacy continues on since her passing in 2011. Sure, this is an exceptional example of the empowerment of women, but what I appreciated about her and our little interaction, is the reiteration that the empowerment of women—and the spreading of feminism—must start from a place of selflessness and result in giving a voice to women who might be afraid to use it, or worse, think they don’t have one.
If you have that bumper sticker on your car, remove it. We all have a voice that can empower by simply sharing stories of other extraordinary women. If not the authors, let us at least become the editors of history to include the incredible women who merit as much recognition as the men who do. Together, that can be our little thing.
About the author: A triple threat: nerdy, always hungry, and the last one off the dance floor. Katixa Mercier lives locally and professionally marinates the Albuquerque metro area working for a boutique distributor. When not hosting a libation-centric event, she is likely cooking with her husband and dachshund, listening to vinyl.