Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya

BookCoverDonna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Kadir Nelson,
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya
Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Ages 4-8

Nobel Peace Prize-winning Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai is the subject of Mama Miti, a picture book collaboration between Donna Jo Napoli (Bound, Ready to Dream) and Kadir Nelson (We Are the Ship).

Mama Miti means “mother of trees” in the Kikuyu language of Kenya’s largest ethnic group, and makes for a perfect nickname for someone who “changed a country, tree by tree,” helping its deforested, dry landscape return to its natural green state.

Wangari became well-known in her homeland – and indeed the world over – for her knowledge of ecology and sustainable development, and for her work as founder of the Green Belt Movement. People would travel from all parts of Kenya for a chance to ask her advice on how to address their various challenges, such as dealing with sick or starving animals, streams which no longer provided drinking water, lack of shelter, and more. Planting a tree was what she always recommended.

“Plant them. Plant as many as you can,” she would say, handing them seedlings for themukuyu tree, which acts as nature’s filter to clean streams; for muthakwa wa athi, whose leaves cure gall sickness in cattle; for muheregendi, which makes good animal feed. Occasionally, she would also recommend they plant muringa, “for the pure joy of their white flowers.”  One by one they would return home and carry out her instructions. Their lives improved and their trees grew; and then “they shared new seedlings with their neighbors, who carried them home and grew their own trees.” An Afterword also provides a timeline that will help young ones understand this beautiful narrative within the wider context of Wangari Maathai’s accomplishments.

Visually speaking, too, this book speaks volumes. While much has been said about Kadir Nelson’s talent, I think nowhere is it more evident than in this book. His mixed-media art of oil paints and colorful printed fabrics make for illustrations that are bathed in light and easy to love. They are a beautiful tribute to the can-do spirit and resilience that Wangari Maathai and her fellow countrymen and women embody. Wangari’s portrait on the last page, for instance, has an aura of gentleness to it that makes one think of her as Mother Earth herself, offering protection. This is an awe-inspiring and glorious book all around!

A glossary of Kikuyu words and author and illustrator’s notes are included.


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