The Spirit of Reverence for Life
Dr. Wangari Maathai is traveling around the world urging the importance of protecting our natural environment with the rallying cry mottainai. Why has this Japanese word—which means, “What a waste!”—so captured Dr. Maathai’s imagination? The moment I saw her beaming smile at our meeting in 2005, I understood immediately: because Wangari is also known as the mother of the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots effort to plant trees in many African countries. In the past 30 years, poor women in the countryside have joined Wangari in planting more than 30 million trees across Africa. They are women who must rise early in the morning and walk many miles each day, their infant children strapped to their backs, in search of water and firewood. This movement to make their lives easier and at the same time protect the natural environment is indeed a movement of mothers, for mothers and by mothers.
It’s only to be expected that Wangari, who has led such a movement for decades, should be impressed by the wisdom of Japanese mothers as exemplified by their byword, mottainai.
For people of my generation, who lived through World War II, the word mottainai reminds us of our mothers. Any scrap of food left over from our dinner or its preparation was transformed by our mothers’ hardworking hands into a delicious home-cooked treat to fill the stomachs of her growing children. She pickled the leaves cut off the top of radishes, chopped vegetable peelings into a tasty side dish, and served us leftover grilled fish as our afternoon snack. Kids were proud to wear pants with patches their mothers had sewn on their knees. Mothers were masters of a science of nutrition based on love, a home economics based on thrift and ingenuity.
The spirit of loving care that precluded wasting anything was one of Japan’s most admirable virtues in those times, and it was intimately linked to a nurturing ethos of reverence for life and consideration for others. I’m sure I’m not alone in lamenting the loss of this spirit as one reason behind the loss of humanity so painfully evident in our world today.
My wife, who also experienced the privation of the war years, has always striven to be thrifty and economical in managing our household. She never wastes so much as a grain of rice, and any leftovers from dinner are certain to make a second appearance at another meal. Recycling is second nature to her, and she has always saved things like wrapping paper and ribbon for reuse.
These examples of everyday ingenuity and resourcefulness may seem slight or negligible, but mothers of the world have used this homespun wisdom and love as effective tools for sustaining their families and improving their lives.
Wangari also conceived of her Green Belt Movement out of compassion and concern for the future of her children and her homeland of Kenya. She applauds the noble, ordinary women who participate in the movement as “foresters without diplomas.” Their committed solidarity and steadfast efforts in their communities are not only preventing the desertification of Africa but also raising awareness of environmental issues in the minds of people the world over. Their service to humanity and the Earth far exceeds that of any national leader. In a speech given at our university, Wangari said that politicians inevitably try to take advantage of the people, and so it is vital for the people to prevent that by involving themselves in government. This is indeed true. I believe that democracy in the 21st century needs to be based upon learning from the wisdom of mothers, who are truly representatives of the people, and putting the wisdom of women to the fullest possible use.
My mother is also the starting point of my activities for peace. She remained brave and undaunted though four of her sons were taken away from her, one after another, to fight in World War II. But after the war, when she received the news that her eldest son had been killed in the fighting, she was heartbroken. I will never forget the sight of her pain and sorrow at that moment as long as I live.
The sorrow of one good-hearted mother is the sorrow of millions of mothers. War, which forces the mothers of the world into submission and subjects them to starvation and such bitter grief, must never be permitted, no matter what the circumstances.
Planting a tree is planting life; it is fostering the future, fostering peace—these are beliefs that Wangari and I found we shared at the deepest level when we met and talked.
“No matter how hopeless the situation seems,” she told me then, “the light of hope can shine."
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