When Wangari Maathai was a little girl growing up in central Kenya in Africa, the land was green, the streams full, and the trees grew thick and lush. To help her family with meals, Wangari gathered firewood from the trees around her village.
On her first day gathering, her mother told her "Don't collect any firewood from a fig tree." Wangari asked "Why not?" Her mother answered, "That is a tree of God. We don't cut it, we don't burn it, we don't use it all." And so Wangari was careful, along with the rest of the village, to let the fig trees live a good long time. She didn't know it then, but the roots of the strong tree helped water come to the surface from deep below the earth. Until they fell to the ground naturally of old age, the fig trees helped the Kenyan soil stay rich and alive.
Wangari was a smart girl and worked hard in school. When she grew up, she went to America to study biology in college.
But when Wangari returned six years later, Kenya had changed. Many trees had been cut to make way for new buildings and large coffee and tea plantations. In some places, the land was bare and the streams had dried up. Even the fig trees had been cut. And no one had thought to put in new trees. Kenya was becoming a desert. That was hard for the birds, insects, and many other animals.
It was also hard for the people. Soon Wangari was hearing from the women of Kenya that many people did not have enough to eat. Clean water was hard to find and so was firewood for cooking. Wangari listened to the women who spoke to her, and she began to get an idea.
Wangari's idea to help everything was to plant trees. She planted small seedling trees in her own back yard, right in the city. When she saw the trees grow strong and green, she taught the women in her village to plant trees and gave them seedlings to plant. When other women saw the village turn green again, they wanted to plant trees too. Soon Wangari started a nursery and gave tree seedlings to women all over Kenya. She paid them money for each tree planted and kept alive, which helped them to buy food.
Some people laughed and said that women could not plant trees, but more and more women planted trees. And dried, brown land in Kenya turned soft and green again. But the cutting of trees continued. Wangari tried to protect the trees and told the tree cutters to stop. She did not believe so much building was needed. But powerful people disagreed. Wangari was arrested and went to jail for what she believed in. But others continued to plant trees and protect those that were still alive. Eventually, Wangari was released from jail.
As more trees were planted, the desert was pushed away and the land came back to life. Streams flowed once more. The soil became rich and healthy again. More and more people helped plant trees. By 2004, when Wangari won the Nobel Peace Prize, more than 30 million trees had been planted. Kenya was green again.