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Wangari Maathai – living the life of an engaged scholar (1940-2011)

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Jean-Marc Mangin, Executive Director, CFHSS I first met Dr. Maathai face to face in September 2009 for a working breakfast in New York. Later that day, she was scheduled to address the UN General Assembly summit on climate change as the lone voice from civil society. The problem was that her speech (developed with the help of several umbrella NGOs and some UN officials) was an incoherent mess that attempted to please everyone. She knew it and I knew it and this last minute breakfast was our only chance to fix it. Nonetheless, she was smiling and laughing (and, unknown to me, already fighting her cancer). In the course of a couple of hours of mad but fun re-drafting, her unique voice re-emerged in the speech. These were the only sections that received spontaneous applause later that day. I worked again with Dr. Maathai when she attended the Copenhagen climate conference – she brought rare hope and can-do optimism to an international conference laden with mistrust and missed historical opportunities. Dr. Maathai, the first African woman to earn a PhD in Eastern Africa, was deeply engaged in tackling the challenges of her society. For her, there were no artificial barriers between academia and community, between compassion, action and scholarly reflection. She leaves an example for all of us. It was a privilege to briefly cross her path.

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