Monday, December 01, 2008

A Lovely Story with some unexpected Catholic Background

When I was doing my research for this year's library tree project, I spent a bunch of time at a local bookstore, checking out great new children's titles. Easily my favorite (which it turns out the library had already purchased) was Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola.

It's a lovely true story about a lady from Kenya who won the Nobel Peace prize for helping her country recover its economic security by starting a movement to replant the trees and small farms and gardens that had helped the country prosper in the past, but that had been cut down to make way for larger commercial farming (which had devastated the economy).

The thing that had struck me about the book on this first read-through was the beautiful sense of order and dignity - the importance of stewardship of nature, the use of the people themselves as important resources in solving problems, the simplicity of remembering that one person can really make a substantial change, the need for perseverance even when things aren't easy right away. Basically: we change ourselves to change the world. It also has lovely small-is-beautiful and principle-of-subsidiarity sort of themes in it.

The thing I had forgotten was a detail about the years that Wangari had spent in America - where she went to college and majored in biology. I had completely forgotten that she went to a Catholic college (even though the campus picture is portrayed with nuns in habits walking around!). There is a lovely indication in the story that their philosophical influence had a significant impact on her story (and is of course an essential part of the story that her background in biology helped prepare her for her good work):
Her heart was filled with the beauty of her native Kenya when she left to attend a college run by Benedictine nuns in America, far, far from her home. There she studied biology, the science of living things. It was an inspiring time for Wangari. The students in America in those years dreamed of making the world better. The nuns, too, taught Wangari to think not just of herself but of the world beyond herself.

How eagerly she returned to Kenya! How full of hope and of all that she had learned!
The story (and the book) is SO right and so beautiful in so many ways. It's a book anyone could love.

The unexpected discovery I made when I read the "Author's Note" in the back of the book was that the college Wangari attended in the United States was Benedictine College in Atchinson, Kansas, which is familiar to me for many reasons - most particularly because the husband of a good friend of mine is a professor of philosophy there.

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