Garden honors Pitt alumna and Nobel laureate

Chancellor Nordenberg, along with other University administrators, honored late Pitt alumnus Wangari Maathai on Wednesday by planting twin red maple trees, representing her dual roots that grounded her in both Pittsburgh and Kenya. 

The circular garden in which the trees now reside symbolizes her global vision of preserving the environment and empowering women and children. In the center, a small tree is planted, Nordenberg said, to represent the idea that one small seed can change the world.

About 40 people, including members of the Pitt community and of Maathai’s family, sat outside of the Cathedral of Learning’s Fifth Avenue entrance to see University officials dedicate a plaque and the garden to the late Nobel Laureate and Pitt alumna on the two-year anniversary of her death.

Maathai, who was born in the village of Ihithe, Kenya, came to the U.S. in 1960 as part of then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s Airlift Africa initiative. Five years later, she graduated from Pitt with a master’s degree in biology. 

Through her research and studies at Pitt, Maathai launched into social, political and environmental activism in Kenya. This led to sustainable living for women and children alike and had a lasting effect on environmental conservation.

Alice Kindling, a member of Pitt’s Board of Trustees, recalled her interactions with Maathai. 

“As dynamic of a speaker she was, she was ten times dynamic of an individual,” Kindling said.

Maathai is widely recognized as the leader of the Green Belt Movement, an organization that she established in Kenya in 1977. The movement focuses on community empowerment and education, tree planting and advocacy and has spread to many African villages since its creation. It has been successful in revitalizing hundreds of economies. 

In his speech, Nordenberg said that Maathai’s years of research in Kenya spurred her development of an economic model for African villages. The plan consisted of planting trees in order to sustain land. Then, the trees would yield crops, bring income to the small villages and supply wood, fodder, fencing, shade and, in some cases, nutritious food. 

Maathai recognized that trees had the potential to heal the land and bring birds and small animals into the ecosystem. Nordenberg described this process as having the ability to “regenerate the vitality of the earth.”

Nicholas Wambua, a Kenyan student studying at Pitt, said, “I am so proud. Even for Kenyans who are one to do big things, this has a lasting inspirational effect.”

During his speech, Nordenberg held a moment of silence to commemorate both her life and the victims of the recent terrorist actions in Nairobi, Kenya.

After the dedication ceremony, Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kathy Humphrey commented on Nordenberg’s speech. 

“I just kept thinking of Maya Angelou’s poem, ‘Still I Rise.’ We all experienced tough times throughout our lives, and we all grow from them,” she said. “Wangari Maathai never accepted defeat. She never stayed down. She persisted, and still, she rose.”

According to a University statement, Maathai returned to Pitt in 2006 to be honored with a doctorate in public service for her accomplishments. During this lecture, she spoke fondly of her time spent at Pitt and remarked on her life’s work in Kenya and other parts of the world, sharing with the audience how she views the University of Pittsburgh as one of her homes. 

“Pittsburgh taught me to not waste any opportunity, to do what can be done. And there is a lot to do,” Nordenberg recalled Maathai saying. 

For Humphrey, the meaning of the garden transcends its physical appearance.

“For some it will just look like a few trees. For many, they represent so much more. For me, they are a symbol of encouragement,” she said.

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