Green Belt Movement Founder Professor Wangari Maathai Honored in Song-Cycle by Japanese Composer

September 20, 2017
Green Belt Movement - U.S. Office

The late Professor Wangari Maathai was many things in her life: the first woman in East and Central Africa to be awarded a Ph.D., and the first environmentalist and first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (in 2004). She fought for democratic space, good governance, women’s rights, and peace—and with the Green Belt Movement planted millions of trees throughout Kenya.

Now, Professor Maathai is the subject of a five-part song-cycle, entitled And the Hummingbird Says . . . , by award-winning, New York–based composer Mihoko Suzuki, with words from writer Martin Rowe and from Prof’s own speeches and books. Mihoko, who was partly inspired by Professor Maathai’s commitment to the Japanese concept of mottainai, or “not wasting,” uses the Japanese Buddhist elements (earth, water, fire, wind, and void) to explore many dimensions of Maathai’s efforts to protect the land and its peoples from destruction.

The title of the cycle comes from the story of a hummingbird that tries to put out a forest fire with water from its beak while the other animals mock it and do nothing. Prof heard the story in Japan in 2005, and told it many times thereafter. Other aspects of Prof’s life featured in the cycle include the loss of the fig tree, the protests by the mothers of political prisoners, and the hummingbird fable itself.

The cycle, which is scored for four voices, was recorded in the Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City (where Maathai gave her first speech in the city after winning the Nobel Peace Prize). It will receive its world premiere at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater at Symphony Space at 1:45 p.m. on Saturday October 21, 2017. The download/CD can be ordered for $15 at, and will be completed in October 2017. Tickets for the world premiere can be purchased in advance online at Symphony Space or at the box office: (212) 864-5400.

Mihoko writes: “I was drawn to Wangari because of our commitment to conserve the planet and the other species who share it with us. It’s so hard to express one’s feelings about the disappearance of so much life: the subject is so vast and impersonal. But Wangari’s struggles—as a non-Westerner, as a post-colonial survivor, as a campaigner for democracy, and as a passionate defender of Mother Earth—embodied its importance for me.”