On a historic day for his home country, Kenyan Ambassador Elkanah Odembo participated in a ceremonial tree planting at Mississippi State University in memory of Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who greatly influenced her country and whose life's work continues to impact people around the world.
Maathai, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and African environmentalist who led in founding the Green Belt Movement, is author of "Unbowed," the university's selection for the 2012-2013 freshman common reading experience, Maroon Edition. The activist who became internationally recognized for her persistent struggle for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation, died in 2011 at age 71.
On the day of Kenya's first elections since approving a new constitution, which he said was influenced by Maathai, Odembo said the tree planting at MSU in memory of Maathai also honors Kenya.
Odembo called the author's memoir "an incredible book."
"It's the story of Wangari Maathai, but in many ways, it is the story of Kenya and the story of Africa," Odembo said. He added that the book also represents the story of the struggle of women in Africa.
"For me, I have many, many fond memories of that great lady," Odembo said, going on to explain that Maathai's work for environmentalism and human rights were very important for ushering in a new era for Kenya.
"It is unimaginable that one individual was able to influence so much," he said.
MSU President Mark E. Keenum said in conjunction with Maroon Edition, MSU has planted about 8,000 trees. Odembo visited the MSU Golf Course, where students have planted thousands of trees as part of the university's sustainable efforts.
Freshman aerospace engineering major Jacob Stephens of Laurel, said he read "Unbowed," and found Maathai inspirational. He is one of three students who were named winners of a Maroon Edition essay contest with awards presented during the ceremony.
Stephens said the book showed him that Maathai failed many times, but she never gave up on her goals.
"It was inspiring to see that she never did let anyone bring her down. You have to fail in order to succeed," Stephens said. "She still persevered."
Stephens' essay earned the second place award, while first place went to chemistry major Catherine Feng of Starkville. Miata Morgan, a biological sciences major from Birmingham, received third place.
Odembo joined Keenum, Provost and Executive Vice President Jerry Gilbert and Maroon Edition Chair Linda Morse in turning ground over the newly planted tree in Maathai's memory. The tree stands near the southwest corner of the Drill Field with a commemorative plaque.
"We hope that this maple tree here in the heart of our campus will remind us that although we are rooted in Mississippi, we share a common desire for peace and dignity with people around the world," Keenum said.
For more information about Mississippi State University, see www.msstate.edu.