Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan activist and first environmentalist to win a Nobel Peace Prize, liked to tell a story about a determined hummingbird:
‘A huge wildfire consumed the forest where the hummingbird lived, and as the fire raged, all the animals left the forest and stood watching, transfixed and overwhelmed. They all felt so overwhelmed that they did not do anything, but the hummingbird decided, ‘I am going to do something about the fire.’ So it flew to the nearest stream, got a drop of water in its beak, and dropped it on the fire. Then it went back again, and again, dropping water on the fire as fast as it could. The other animals mocked the hummingbird, saying, ‘What are you doing? You are too small, your wings are too small, and the fire is huge.’ The hummingbird turned to them and said, ‘I am doing the best I can.’
Our world, like the animals’ forest, is being consumed by a huge fire. As most people stand by and watch, we’re in desperate need of a generation of hummingbirds “who are willing to stand up for what is right even if they are the only ones doing it,” says Wanjira Maathai, Wangari’s daughter and the Chairwoman of the Wangari Maathai Foundation, whose mission is to honor her legacy by inspiring the next generation of courageous leaders.
Kenya’s environmental laws are actually quite strong, at least on paper. The country has had life sentences and fines of up to US$200,000 for the illegal killing of endangered or threatened species since 2013, under its Wildlife Conservation and Management Act. And they recently passed a law that now includes capital punishment for environmental offenses. Tourism and Wildlife Minister Najib Balala says this is because existing deterrents against killing wild animals in the east African nation are insufficient. Wanjira, however, says the problem runs deeper than that.
“We’re facing a values and personal leadership crisis in Kenya,” Wanjira says. “We have too many people who have no clear values, or selfish values, that govern the decisions they make.
A recent study by the Aga Khan University’s East African Institute found that 73% of Kenyans admitted that they are afraid to stand up for what they believe in for fear of retribution, and 50% considered corruption to be a legitimate way of doing business. It’s alarming.” It shows on a macro level, too. Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index rated Kenya 145th out of 176 countries. And this combination of fear, greed and apathy has led to widespread environmental destruction and an erosion of democratic values. It’s a problem that, while potent in Kenya, exists all over the world.
What makes the situation unique and potentially explosive in Kenya, and in the rest of Africa, is the demographics of its population. That same study found that 80% of Kenyans are under the age of 35. “We’re at a crossroads,” Wanjira says. “If we sit back and do nothing, we are headed for unprecedented environmental destruction among other challenges. But it’s also an incredible opportunity to change the course of our country.”
A recent study found that 73% of Kenyans admitted that they are afraid to stand up for what they believe in for fear of retribution, and 50% considered corruption to be a legitimate way of doing business. These are the real roots of the environmental crisis.
Islands of Integrity: Growing Hummingbird Leaders
Professor Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, an environmental organization that empowers communities, particularly women, to conserve the environment and improve livelihoods. A simple but powerful principle has driven that movement: Concerned citizens cannot sit around and hope that the government or some other entity is going to solve the environmental crisis, or the epidemic of corruption, alone. Change starts within. Change starts by developing the internal capacities of individuals, who then take action in their families and their communities. That means developing emotional intelligence skills like empathy, courage and resilience.
“Underneath it all, when you cut through all the confusion, it is these social emotional skills – or a lack thereof – that are responsible for the biggest and most important challenges of our time,” Wanjira Maathai
In Kenya’s public schools, though, like in most schools throughout the world, this type of social emotional learning is often under prioritized or treated as a second class citizen in the classroom. The focus is almost exclusively on sharpening cognitive skills and not on non-cognitive skills like empathy, integrity, and confidence. Because of this, according to Wanjira: “We are churning out one dimensional graduates.. But we are not speaking to the non-cognitive skills which are the crucial elements of people that drive behavior more than anything else.”
‘I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse & climate change… I was wrong, the top environmental problems are selfishness, greed & apathy.’ A new initiative in Kenya tackling environmental crisis by…
“The future of the planet concerns all of us… We often preoccupy ourselves with symptoms, whereas if we went to the root cause, we would be able to overcome the problems once & for all.” @WangariMaathai
The Hummingbird Leadership Program has been designed to fill that gap.
The Foundation has anchored the program on eight core SEL values that exemplify the life and work of Professor Wangari Maathai: Courage and Confidence, Integrity and Honesty, Commitment to Excellence, Creativity and Resourcefulness, Resilience, Gratitude, Service to Others, Responsible Stewardship
“It’s a personal leadership and character building project, equipping young people with the tools and skills they need to meet the challenges of the future, to create opportunities for themselves, and to create what we’re calling islands of integrity,” Wanjira says. The ultimate goal is to create a nation, and a world, full of hummingbirds who are doing their part.
The program launched in 4 pilot schools in October 2018.