The Advocate by Rebecca Via  Wangari Maathai died on September 25, 2011 in Nairobi, Kenya. She seemed indestructible, a woman made of steel, so naturally when I learned from my father that she had gotten sick, I never thought the disease would take her life. I remember being in school and getting a text from one of my friends: “Wangari passed away this morning, I’m so sorry Becca.” My breath caught in my throat. I was shocked. I had seen her just last summer, her bold figure and snowy white smile driving me forward as I embraced her in a long overdue hug. I remember her arms wrapping around my body like she was a mother I had not seen after months of being away. I was thirteen, no longer a child, but instantly thrown back a few years ago when I first laid my eyes on her. She was wearing traditional Kenyan clothing; a bright golden yellow and sky blue dress matched the headdress that held her braided hair in place. I first saw her as she was teaching women from the village how to plant trees. She was standing in a plant nursery, her hands painted by the red clay soil that was unique to the Kenyan farmland. Since childhood she had been an artist, a sculptor for the rich Kenyan soil. Her hands acted as her tools to create the legacy of her name, and as each tree grew tall the beauty that she created with the clay of the earth was evident. I remember getting out of the van--we were in the Kenyan countryside, the sun beaming on my back and neck. This country was nothing like what I expected. The green hills and valleys stretched as far as the eye could see with farms lining the walls of the hills. My father embraced Wangari in a hug and motioned for me to join him. She took my hand and I stood with her in front of the farms and the fellow members of my group. She knelt down and picked up one of the young trees from around her feet. In this tree sanctuary there must have been over a hundred young trees. She held it in her hand saying that the people learn early on to not waste anything, thus explaining why all the trees were growing in plastic bags. With one hand holding the tree and the old hand entwined in mine, she turned and handed me the tree. I released my hand from her grip so that I could hold the tree with both hands. At the time it seemed like the most precious thing in the world. She told me it was an avocado tree and that we would plant the first one together. Dirt lined the outside of the plastic bag and the roots were beginning to grow out of the bottom. She picked up a watering can and poured it over the avocado tree. As water dripped down over the bag, my hands began to assume the same red tint as hers, holding in place the color of the earth. Next she instructed me to massage the bag and, while holding the thin trunk of the tree between my fingers, hold the bag upside down. As the tree fell into my hands, we moved together to a hole in the ground and placed our avocado tree back in the earth. She knelt beside me, our knees and hands pressed into the soil, moving the earth into place around my first tree. Over the course of the day, I planted many more young trees, but the first is the one that will remain in my mind. The tree and the woman who taught me how to expand life. As time went on, I began to learn more and more about the life of this extraordinary human being. The one thing that sculpted her perfectly in my mind was her stories. It seemed she had new stories every time we were together, but I always had a habit of asking to hear the old ones over and over again. In all her stories she had combined metaphors and life lessons to show the world exactly what she had to say. She often told the story about her childhood when she first realized that her goal in life was to preserve and save the environment of her homeland, starting in Kenya and eventually moving to other countries all over Africa and the world. The story would go something like this: “When I was a girl it was my job to go get water from the river that ran a few miles from my home village. I looked forward to this trip every day knowing that the river was a place for life to come together. I would take time to play in the trees and watch wildlife come to drink. I took this journey every year until I was sent to school, but I would still think about those moments of my day and it would remind me of home. I went back to my home village when my schooling was over to take the familiar walk to the river. But things were no longer green and the soil was kicked up into dust when I walked. When I got there the river was gone. Dried up. That’s when I knew that a violent change had come to my homeland, and I knew I had to change it.” This was the story that she used to inspire herself, but it was more than that. It captured an important part of her nature, the part that had a conviction for creating something good. She made me hope that one day I could see that light in myself. Her presence emanated from her figure and demeanor, which continually conveyed the power of her personality. She always seemed tall, somewhere between 5’9 and 5’10, but maybe it just seemed that way to me because I was younger back then and still growing. It was easy to see her when she entered a room as she always wore traditional Kenyan attire in only the brightest colors. She loved wearing bright yellows and blues and greens. My favorite was always the bright yellow that looked almost gold when she stood in the sun, the same dress she wore when first being introduced to me when I was nine. Although her eyes were a deep dark brown, they still seemed to have a light to them. I still don’t know how, but her eyes seemed to reflect everything she saw and had a peculiar way of lighting up her face. Her vivacity was perfectly captured in her radiant smile, which shone juxtaposed to her Kenyan skin. What was clear was that she was not a small woman, built strong and confident, which time and experience gave her. Every step was a powerful yet humble movement as if her step alone would create an imprint in the marble tiles as easily as a stone being pressed into the earth. Meaningful and direct, she moved and spoke with precision and purpose commanding the attention of any given audience. But there was a gentleness to her, gentleness and strength. A characteristic so enduring that anyone could imagine Mother Nature opening her arms to Wangari’s embrace. The conscious flow of her intentions emanated through her pores like a rushing river that was capable of smoothing even the most rugged surfaces. She never attempted to soften the impact of intense experiences because she believed intently in the importance of feeling the extreme emotions that come with those moments in time. She was a mother, a daughter, a leader, an ambassador, an advocate for the unspoken, a mentor, and a friend. Her fears and tormentors were greeted only by her perseverance and kinsman-ship. When she was beaten down, she held herself proud and resilient; who could match the nobility of her character? The Kenyans knew her either as the tree planting lady or trouble maker, but to the perspective of an outsider it would be easy to see why both interpretations could be equality valid. My dad, who had known her far longer than I had, would tell me all about her bravery. Her nonviolent protests for the Kenyan environment roused thousands of people. Her convictions for women and the environment even made her a target for political leaders and law enforcement. My dad would often tell me about her years in hiding, avoiding law officials, and even being beaten and locked up in jail for her efforts. But nothing stopped her because in her mind she was just a single piece to a much larger puzzle. If her pain or discomfort could potentially make the world a better place, then it would be worth it a thousand times over. Her bravery seemed to stand apart from the passing of time, the ticking of a clock, never aging in her timeless youth. But her time was cut short leaving only the sounds of the clock, no longer marked by the sound of her voice or the trees that she planted, which could have touched the heavens. I was shocked when she finally passed away, and I couldn’t bring myself to address my loss. I didn’t want to believe that she was gone. Her last and final story is one she told again and again. It was the same story that she told to my dad, a story that many people have told when remembering her. Despite the many voices that tell this story, I always seem to hear just one voice: Wangari’s. A voice whose melody reminds me of a country that was introduced to me because of her determination to share her life and home with the world. At one of the many memorial services held for her, I told this story to those who came out to support and respect her. So I began, “Once there was a raging fire in the woods. All the animals were running away from the fire--the lions, leopards, hippo, and elephants. All the animals ran away except for one. A tiny hummingbird was going back and forth between the river and fire, each time dropping a small amount of water on the raging fire. All the animals, who could each carry ten times as much water as the hummingbird, asked the hummingbird what he was doing and said there was no hope, to which the hummingbird replied, ‘I’m just doing what I can.’” My dad continues to live on in her legacy. He embraces the determination needed when serving the poor, the underrepresented, the repressed, and all things that have no voice in a world much larger than ourselves. When speaking about her, my dad and I do so with smiles that could never compare to hers, but as our hearts expand at the memories we shared, it is hard not to feel an immense and ever expanding love for the world. She brought my dad to Africa; my dad brought me to Africa; together we live in a single passion. With this passion we realize that our lives are interconnected whether she is here with us or not. We understand that life is meant to be given back, and we will not spend even one moment forgetting that we are called to be more, do more, and find inspiration in even the most obscure details. The world is far from perfect, she reminded us of that, but she also showed people that we can all find good in the darkest of times and share that goodness with the world.