Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya

by Donna Jo Napoli; ill. by Kadir Nelson

Simon & Schuster, 2010

40 pages

I’ve written before about my desire to raise my daughter with a nuanced view of Africa, one that’s more multi-dimensional than the depressing and patronizing portrayal in popular media.

Part of what I want her to understand is that we (meaning white Westerners) do not need to “save” Africa. It is not a monolith peopled and governed entirely by helpless, ignorant victims and violent, power-mad warlords. Rather, it is a place of varied cultures, histories, and people, many of whom are acting with courage, intelligence, and great effectiveness to improve their nations.

In other words, I want her to know that we do not need to step in, like arrogant colonialists, to “fix” the region. Rather, we need to be humble and helpful, partnering with suffering people in a way that supports dignity, their unique communities, and the good works of native leaders.

So when I found Mama Miti at our local library, it had to come home with us. I love Kadir Nelson’s work anyway, and I could see at a glance that this picture book carries an inspiring message about the power of one woman to help others, both on a personal and national level.

Mama Miti is the nickname of Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Born in rural Kenya in 1940, Maathai became the first woman in central or east Africa to earn a Ph.D., and the first woman to head a Kenyan university department (the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi).

Through her work as a veterinarian, she became a pioneer in the fields of sustainable development and ecological preservation. She was arrested numerous times over the years for her activism, but her work so inspired the Kenyan people that she was elected to Kenya’s Parliament in 2002.

Mama Miti is the story of how Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots effort to reforest Kenya and other African nations.

In elegant, straightforward text, repeating the phrase “Thaya nyumba–Peace, my people,” Donna Jo Napoli tells how women from all over Kenya came to Maathai’s home in Nairobi to seek her advice. One had no food for her family, so Maathai told her to plant the fruit-bearing mubiru muiru tree. Another lamented that her spring had become polluted, so Maathai told her to plan the mukuyu tree, which naturally filters water.

Others had starving, sick, or predator-ravished livestock; dilapidated homes; low-yielding crops; or not enough firewood. For each problem, Maathai suggested a tree that would help. Her solutions were so effective that they developed into the Green Belt Movement, which spread like wildfire. Since 1976, when the movement began, Maathai and her protegees have planted more than 30 million trees.

Nelson’s paintings, made using oil paints and fabrics on gessoed board, pay homage to East Africa’s rich heritage of textile art. Their vibrant colors and energy show the true beauty of Kenya and its people. With many of the images dominated by just one or two female figures, he captures the strength and tenacity of the Kenyan women and the personal nature of Maathai’s leadership.

This is indeed a living, breathing Africa–not the one-dimensional cutout seen in the news. Napoli and Nelson don’t downplay the women’s problems; in fact, art and text together dramatically portray the anguish and anxiety that brings the women to Nairobi. But this is ultimately a story of hope, of how encouragement from an empathetic leader can empower downtrodden women to help themselves, their families, their villages, and (ultimately) their nation.

It’s also an example of why I love picture books so much. In just 40 short pages, Napoli and Nelson present a subtle, impactful, true story that engages the reader as much as any epic novel. It has pathos, courage, and rawness. The final image, of Maathai herself, is close to monumental.

It’s a wonderful kind of inspiration: a testament to the power of kindness, peace, and determined women.

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