St. Louis – Wisconsin – Kenya – Forest Park: interesting connections and a bit of history

By Ed Schmidt

Wangari Maathai, Africa’s first female Nobel Peace Prize winner, environmentalist and human rights activist

Wangari Maathai

One of the more unusual things that has happened during my presidency of the St. Louis chapter occurred in late September.  I received an email from Wild Ones executive director Donna VanBuecken asking me to respond to an email she received from one Geoffrey Soyiantet, stating that the Kenyan community in St. Louis would like to plant a tree in honor of Professor Wangari Maathai (sometimes spelled Mathai), Africa’s first female Nobel Peace Prize laureate, environmentalist and human rights activist.

I replied to Donna that I would be happy to do so, especially since I taught in Kenya for two years in the early 1960s, about the same time that Professor Maathai, as well as President Obama’s father, was in the United States getting a college education.

In my email to Geoffrey I recommended that he contact Forest Park Forever’s Peter VanLinn, who led our wonderful walk in the park’s natural areas during our September meeting.  I concluded my email with, “Zamani sana nilikuwa mwalimu huko Kakamega, Kenya, miaka 1961 – 1963. Labda mbele ya uzaliwa yako?”  That’s Swahili for, “A long time ago I was a teacher in Kakamega, Kenya, the years 1961-1963. Perhaps before you were born?”  I copied Peter VanLinn on the email.

Tree planted in Forest Park in honor of Wangari MaathaiPeter replied promptly to Geoffrey, explained Forest Park’s guidelines and requested further information about his group’s wishes.  Did the group have a particular species in mind?  Did they prefer a location in a more formal part of the park where a master plan would dictate location and species, or a more natural area where there was more flexibility?  Peter also noted that the tree would be relatively small, “such as one grown in a 3-gallon pot, so as to be more easily managed during the planting process and future upkeep.”

Planting the tree in Wangari Maathai's honorGeoffrey’s group chose the natural setting, and picked a Swamp White Oak, Quercus bicolor. Geoffrey and Peter met to finalize details and pick the specific location.  The planting occurred on September 29, opposite the Muny on McKinley Dr.  One of the many causes Wangari Maathai championed was the founding of the Green Belt Movement that has planted over 35 million trees.  Planting another one in Forest Park seems like a fitting tribute.

You can read more about Wangari Maathai and her efforts for the environment by reading her own account in Unbowed, which is available in many local libraries.  Here are a couple of video clips to pique your interest.

5 thoughts on “St. Louis – Wisconsin – Kenya – Forest Park: interesting connections and a bit of history

  1. Thanks for sharing! How cool is it that you could be reconnected to Kenya through this tribute to Prof. Maathai. What a courageous woman and a role model for us all!

  2. There’s another local Wild Ones connection. Prof.. Marathai attended the same college that I did in Atchison, Kansas. Now known as Benedictine College, it was then Mount St. Scholastica.

  3. No wonder that the metaphor of gardening is so often used in education. Those seeking a children’s book on Wangari need look no further than “Mama Miti” by [Donna Jo Napoli and illustrated by] Kabir Nelson. Connections are always invaluable.

  4. I finally met Geoffrey Soyiantet on November 8 when he invited me to dinner at a small African restaurant in Florissant called Tam Tam. He is involved in all sorts of projects relating to Kenya and the Kenyan community in St. Louis. One such project is a medical mission to Kenya next summer for which he is seeking donations of medical equipment and supplies, as well as participants to make the trip, which will have service and safari components. In addition to all of that, Geoffrey is on Florissant’s Environmental Quality Commission, which gives Wild Ones a link to another municipal environmental group.

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