Wednesday, 12 October 2011 14:46
Prof Wangari Maathai’s death, though a sad occasion, gives us another opportunity to recall what a rich and meaningful life she led. We are all the richer for her
In many ways Nobel Laureate Prof Wangari Maathai, who passed away on September 25, 2011 in Nairobi, epitomised true courage and, in the words of UNEP Executive Director Mr Achim Steiner, “was a force of nature”.
Her life story is a portrait of an uncompromising belief in environmental sustainability, human rights, pursuit of excellence and democracy. In an interview with Radio France International on her death, Diplomat East Africa’s Editorial Director Kwendo Opanga called her a “force for good”.
Maathai was more feted abroad than she was at home. At a Hollywood luncheon hosted by American film producers following her 2004 Nobel Peace prize, a Kenyan CEO in attendance was struck by the way movie, political, corporate and social glitterati paid homage to her.
Her courage in the line of fire was the most admirable of all her great qualities. She wore the courage of her convictions like a badge of honour. She also had the physical courage to stare down the most formidable foe of her time; the relentless and merciless Kanu tyranny. For that we, at Diplomat East Africa, salute her.
But she was a survivor too, re-inventing herself when fellow women leaders, women organisations and even the University of Nairobi appeared to shun her in the late 1970s. She stood tall where many would have wavered in the wake of her highly publicised and acrimonious divorce. Maathai took her crusade for environmental conservation as an article of faith, tackling politicians head-on often against the wishes of her friends. She was, on several occasions, blessed with a second chance after she was knocked down by the forces she took on.
Against all odds, she survived the dark days of Kanu rule and the repressive government of President Moi in the 1980s. She even cheated death when she suffered serious injury at the hands of hired goons and security agents in her campaigns against human rights abuses in the 1990s. In the lead-up to the 1992 General Election it became clear to her that the opposition would not dislodge Moi and Kanu if it did not rally around a single candidate. She formed the Middle Ground Group which attempted to bring together opposition parties. She failed, but her courage had shown through again.
Her objective was noble, but it would seem the political class at the time; many were Kanu handovers; were unhappy with her stubborn streak and determination to get things her way. This streak was patently evident when she singlehandedly opposed Kanu’s plan to build a 60-storey monolith in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park and came into direct confrontation with Moi and his retinue of Kanu praise singers.
Moi in a burst of anger referred to her as “mama mmoja anajitokeza” (woman who has stepped up to the plate) in opposition to Kanu’s plans “kujengajumba la fahari” (build a prestigious building) in Nairobi. It was a signal to the Kanu machine to fight Maathai. It failed. But now she was evidently, in the language of the time, Kenya’s Leading Green. And she remained relevant, locally and globally, even after the government of President Mwai Kibaki snubbed her in 2003.
Contrary to public expectations, Kibaki appointed her an Assistant Minister in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources after the 2002 elections, but surprisingly failed to appreciate the irony of his actions. Here was a world class environmentalist tasked to deputise for a minister who knew a lot less about the environment!
It would appear Kibaki and his cronies were not particularly fond of her partly because of her acrimonous break-up with their business and political confidant Mwangi Mathai, and also because she did not compromise easily, particularly when she felt she was right; which she often was.
But she received recognition where it mattered most; on the world stage. For her life-long commitment to environmental sustainability and the empowerment of women she received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. She became the first African woman and first environmentalist to receive the prestigious award. It was not the only first she achieved; hers was a life of firsts and distinctions.
She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, obtaining it from the University of Nairobi in 1971, and the first woman to run a university department in Kenya. So how do you pay a fitting tribute to a talent and personality as outstanding as Maathai? This is the challenge we faced as a publication as we sought to pen a tribute in her memory. She was a dear friend of this news magazine and, indeed, one of our cherished, founding and expert contributors.
Just before she was re-admitted to the Nairobi Hospital in mid-September, she had most graciously agreed to be interviewed for the November issue of this publication. But it was not to be; it would seem the Great Editor up there had other assignments for her. Maathai was also a patron of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the inspiration behind the agency’s Billion Tree Campaign that encourages people across the world to plant trees for the benefit of their communities.
More recently, Maathai, 71, served as the UN’s Messenger of Peace as well as a member of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Advocacy Group, which Ban Ki-moon set up last year to advance progress on the Millennium Development Goals – the globally agreed targets for slashing hunger, poverty, disease and lack of access to education, all by 2015.
Since then, the movement has planted an estimated 45 million trees in Africa and assisted nearly 900,000 women to establish tree nurseries and plant trees to reverse the effects of deforestation. This is “the force of nature” UNEP’s Steiner was referring to, and he was right
Maathai started her journey to the top in humble circumstances, She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 to encourage women in rural Kenya to plant trees to improve their livelihoods through better access to clean water, firewood for cooking and other resources. It would seem adversity brought out the best in her.
She was born near Nyeri in Kenya’s Central Province (now Nyeri County) in 1940, and received her education in Kenya and the United States. Her qualities included an incredible ability to surmount any obstacle and though, by her own admission, often she had to will herself up when the going got tough, and it did.
For instance in 1997, she decided to plunge into Kenya’s murky mainstream elective politics when she vied for the presidency under the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya, previously known as the Liberal Party of Kenya (LPK) in that year’s polls. Urged on by admiring women leaders from around the world at a conference attended by, among others the late Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, Maathai hinted that she would have a stab at the presidency.
Perhaps giving currency to the saying that a prophet is seldom recognised at home, Maathai failed dismally, losing both the presidential and parliamentary bids. Unbowed and undeterred, she moved on, happily returning to her Greenbelt Movement and for another round in her unending war with the Moi government.
This time the battle was over its illegal excision of the Karura Forest, which in a peculiar twist, neighbours UNEP’s headquarters on the outskirts of Nairobi.
For her troubles, she was clobbered senseless in 1999 and had to be hospitalised with serious injuries. I had an encountered with her during the violence at the entrance to UNEP’s headquarters, which humbled me. Watching her being clobbered by policemen and security agents posing as watchmen and workers at a construction site, made me wonder at the kind of life she lived.
It must be hard, I thought to myself, to live with what you know and remember, cut off from what you hope for; it must be the bleak sterility of a life without illusion. But I was wrong. She had her illusions alright and was determined to make her voice heard.
ONCE A POLITICIAN
I was then an editor on a regional publication and asked her the only question that came to my mind: “Why?” She looked at me and my photographer, Patrick Olum, and simply answered: “Because somebody has to do it.” I quietly signaled Olum to stop taking pictures and watched helplessly as she was pushed into the UNEP complex, bleeding and wounded to escape arrest.
Indefatigable to a fault, she returned to politics in the 2002 General Election as part of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) party that routed Kanu. She had won the Tetu constituency parliamentary seat on her Mazingira Party. Her Nobel Peace prize two years later, though a remarkable moment, left many politicians and governments shocked as they could did not see the “peace” connection between human rights and the environment.
But it gave Maathai an international profile and a strong platform to travel the world, pressing home the message that ecology and democracy were inseparable.
Despite her new status, she still served in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources as a junior minister until November 2005, when she quit after the government failed to rally the country to approve a New Constitution in a referendum. In the wake of the referendum fiasco, Kibaki dissolved his government leaving out a faction allied to Mr Raila Odinga, who had earlier ganged up with him to form the Narc party in the first place.
Maathai decided to sit out of the new government named in December 2005, hoping to reconcile the feuding factions, but the schism was too deep and wide to fill and bridge. She later confessed that she had planned to run for president in 2002 but was tricked out of it.
In her later years, she took her campaign to Asia, turning her attention to the giant commercial palm plantations that have destroyed so much of Indonesia and Malaysia and badgered politicians to address climate change, which she said was hurting women the most. Her belief in trees and what they symbolised at times bordered on the hilarious, but her convictions were undeniable.
In many ways, she was lucky too; escaping the Mau Mau rebellion that devastated Central, Nairobi and parts of the Rift Valley Provinces and was sent to a primary school run by Italian nuns. Her magic touch blossomed and she excelled in academics. In 1959, she won a scholarship to study in the US, as part of the airlifts in which 300 Kenyans, including Barack Obama Snr were chosen to study at American universities in the 1960s.
In her writings, she fondly recalled her further studies in Germany and her return to Kenya in 1966. Five years later, she was awarded her historic PhD. She ran the Veterinary Department at the University of Nairobi. But there were the dark moments too; a tumultuous personal life saw her marriage to Mathai, a young Kenyan politician who had also studied in the US, collapse in bitter acrimony. Mathai left her in 1977 and filed for divorce. A highly publicised and damaging divorce case ensued in 1979/80.
The court found against her in 1980 and perhaps to vent her frustration, she gave an interview to the defunct Viva magazine in which she referred to the late Justice Zaccheaus Chesoni as “either incompetent or corrupt”. The magazine was then edited by Mr Salim Lone, currently a media advisor to Prime Minister Odinga.
Maathai was charged with contempt of court and sentenced to six months in prison. Strong willed and still defiant, she only served a few days before paying up the fine. But Mathai, who was the Member of Parliament for Lang’ata in Nairobi, was not done with her yet and demanded that she drops his name. She did not. She simply added an extra ‘a’ to the Mathai to make it Maathai.
If she thought her troubles were over, she was sadly mistaken. She was forced out of the National Council of Women of Kenya, which she chaired over her divorce. She saw the hand of Moi and Kanu behind her woes, and one never known to back down from a good fight took him on. She also left her job at the University of Nairobi and concentrated her efforts on the Green Belt Movement – a Non- Governmental Organisation - she had set up. Despite her woes, it grew beyond her wildest imagination.
Her visits to the countryside seeking to empower women drew the anger of the powerful provincial administration, and she was soon being monitored by the dread Special Branch since renamed NSIS. It was simply a matter of time before she fell foul of Moi and he obliged her sooner than she thought.
In 1988/89 Kanu which owned the newspaper - the Kenya Times partnered with the notorious British media tycoon Robert Maxwell and proposed putting up a 60-storey office complex in Maathai’s beloved Uhuru Park in Nairobi. She saw it as a call to battle.
For Moi and Kanu; she had crossed the line. As long as she planted trees and gave eloquent speeches about conserving the environment, they would tolerate her. When she expanded her repertoire to include demands for political space, freedom for detainees and a return to democracy, she was courting trouble.
In a moment of genius Maathai and other like minded individuals took Kanu to court. Besides the court case, she also ran a vigorous international campaign against the tower of prestige. Her campaigns paid off. Moi backed down, but it was simply a matter of time before they met again in battle. In the meantime, fortune smiled on her again; Maxwell’s’ media empire collapsed.
Maathai took part in a hunger strike at Uhuru Park in 1993 at a place christened Freedom Corner in defiant recognition of her efforts to combat oppression and the release of political prisoners who included a former MP for Subukia and outspoken opponent of Moi’s dictatorship, Koigi Wamwere. But despite her troubles at home, her international profile rose by the day making her champion of environmental conservation and democracy in Africa.
She is survived by two daughters, Wanjiru and Muta, and a son, Waweru, as well as her granddaughter, Ruth. Despite the challenges Prof Wangari Maathai faced, she rose to become a national and international icon. She has passed on but her legacy will live on for ever
BY MOHAMMED WARSAMA