My life's work has been made possible through the dedication, intelligence, and power of women. It was the women in my life who taught me not only to read and write, but about service and community, the values that guide me still.
Women have an innate sense of service. It is part of who we are. We give rise to new life by nurturing it inside us for nine months. Then we bring it forth and feed it with our own milk, with our own body, and eventually, our own self. My mother was the first strong woman in my life. I know that it was she who instilled in me a true sense of my own power and my responsibility as a woman.
Growing up, I was further influenced by the communities of nuns and missionaries who ran the schools I attended. For me, they exemplified solidarity, dedication, and service. Though I was raised in Kenya, my upbringing was very international. My first set of teachers were Italian nuns, and the second ones Irish (I still want to do a jig when I hear Irish music!). I was impressed that these nuns would leave their own homes and their families to travel to a strange country to educate us, complete strangers. Since childhood, I have wanted to emulate these women because they were not only beautiful, smart, and kind, but also because they showed me what it meant to dedicate your life to something greater than yourself. For me, that sense of duty and service to the community was a new way of thinking.
In high school I first met Sister Jean Marie, an Irish nun from the order of Loreto who taught science. I still think of her often and was touched to learn that she is buried in Kenya. She and other sisters had given up, in their own words, "the pleasures of the world" to serve God. They believed in the inherent good of all people, and one of the ways they served God and a higher purpose was to give us a good-quality education. Education is a special gift because it continues to grow and multiply. Our people value education, and these missionaries endowed us handsomely in this area.
Sister Jean Marie took me under her wing. After experiments, she would invite me into the laboratory to clean lab equipments and discuss with me the lessons of the day. Her attention actually made me enjoy the sciences. I was already doing well in my studies. But when a teacher pays special attention to a student, the student pays special attention to that class, and I worked extra hard. It was in large part due to her that I decided to focus my studies on the sciences.
I admired certain aspects of nunhood and would probably have become one if I had been raised as a Catholic. Having grown up as a Protestant, there was always another competing voice in my life calling me toward the values of a family. In our culture, you live for your family and especially the next generation. So the whole concept of forsaking family life to live in a convent was completely unknown to us.
So I found another way to serve, out in the world. My mother always told me that from my grandmother, I inherited a strong sense of wanting to put things right. From the nuns I learned a deep sense of seeking justice for myself and for others. I knew that if I could join forces with others and create a community with a goal, then that goal would be met.
So in 1977, we started the Green Belt Movement. Throughout Africa, women are the primary caretakers and users of primary resources. They are responsible for tilling the land and feeding their families. The Green Belt Movement enlists these rural women to address their own needs--a lack of firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter, and income--by planting trees. Trees provide fuel, food, shelter, and income to support the children's education and the women's household needs. On the scientific side, they also improve soils and watersheds.
Our work is often difficult and accomplished under hostile conditions. Still, the groups of strong women stayed powerful, and worked towards the common good. Women are my army: I say, if you need to get something done, enlist women to your cause. When times were difficult during the struggle for independence in Kenya, I tried to model myself after the nuns who would come into our rooms in the middle of the night to encourage us to not be afraid when the Mau-Mau attacked nearby. Instead, they encouraged us to engage in prayer. I am quite sure they were afraid, but they didnít show that fear. They told us we were strong because we were together, and we were never harmed.
To this day, I refuse to embrace the fears that stand in my way. I tell myself, "So long as we are working together for good, for service to others, we will not be harmed." And although sometimes we have been jailed, even beaten, we have always stayed together and we have pressed on. Together, the women of the Greenbelt Movement have planted more than 30 million trees--women, nurturing the earth itself.
I am proud to share the credit for my accomplishments with my mother who gave birth to me, and with all the nuns who shaped my perception of the world and my role in that world. My work is the embodiment of their patience, persistence, commitment to service.