REMEMBERING WANGARI MAATHAI MAATHAI: FREEDOM FIGHTER FOR MOTHER EARTH/// BY Margaretta wa Gacheru..Published October 16, 2013 in Daily Nation, DN2, Nairobi/// Professor Wangari Maathai knew from early on in her life that she was bound to make waves and lead legions of people whose concern was for freedom, social justice and peaceful protection of Mother Earth. In the documentary film Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, she recalls growing up in the lush green forests that blanketed the mountain, Mt Kenya, where her people, the Kikuyu, traditionally believed their God or Ngai stayed and where He created the first human beings, Gikuyu and Mumbi. The two were rather like Adam and Eve except they never fell from God’s good grace. Instead they were given all the land to till and to glorify their God. Thus, long before the Christians came to Kenya, the Kikuyu were praying people and the land on which they lived and farmed was sacred. One tree was especially blessed, Wangari said. The Mugumu or fig tree was sacred and was never meant to be cut. It was that sacred tree, the thick forests and pure streams of water coming down from the mountain that Wangari said had shaped her childhood vision as well as her lifelong desire to restore the forests which had been carelessly chopped down in the name of progress while she was away from Kenya studying in the United States. I met Wangari shortly before she started the Greenbelt Movement. At the time, she was still chair of the National Council of Women of Kenya, and in an interview for the local media, she told me how she’d been raised with a sense of responsibility to lead. Among the first girls in the country to go to school, her first teachers, the Catholic sisters had instilled in her a sense of duty to use the gifts given her by God wisely and selflessly. That seed of thought, implanted in her heart from a very early age, helps me understand how she went on to become such a courageous trail blazer and fearless freedom fighter not just for women but also for the rights of Mother Earth and the people of Africa. Wangari never forgot that sense of purpose and courage to lead or to speak her mind. She would become ‘the first’ in so many fields, leading both women and men to realize that they too could break ‘glass ceilings’ and debunk stereotypes that would limit human beings’ achievements. She would become one of the first Kenyan women to go on the Tom Mboya-John F. Kennedy Air Lift to the United States for university studies, the first woman Ph.D in East Africa, the first woman to head a [veterinary] science department at one of Kenya’s most prestigious universities, the University of Nairobi, the first woman to spearhead an environmental movement in Africa and also, the first African woman to win a Nobel Prize for peace. But the latter prize from the Nobel committee wasn’t just contingent on her commitment to conservation and her construction of the Greenbelt Movement, which had started humbly as a grassroot women’s initiative while she was still the NCWK chair, but then grew to become a global environmental movement responsible for the planting of millions of trees all over the planet. It’s true that she linked the concepts of reforestation, conflict resolution, peace and development so persuasively that the Swedish philanthropists could hardly reject her candidacy for the Nobel Prize in 2004. But by that time, she was also widely recognized as an avid human rights activist who battled a corrupt civilian dictator like the former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, an African ‘Big Man’ who oppressed, detained and even tortured anyone who questioned his absolute authority or sought accountability, transparency and social justice from their top politician. Wangari was one of Kenya’s most consistent, outspoken and pro-active social activists who might have been happy to remain a university professor and NCWK Chair where she had initially established what would become the Greenbelt Movement. But that was not to be. Her role as an exemplary leader of women and wife who expected both love and mutual respect in her spouse was seen as too much of a threat to most Kenyan male politicians, starting with her husband, Mwangi Maathai, who as a Member of Parliament could hardly stand his wife’s outshining him in public and also advocating gender equity when most MPs couldn’t use the terms equality and women in the same sentence. When Mwangi filed for divorce, he also accused Wangari of immorality, a claim her employer, the University of Nairobi, took seriously as grounds to fire her from her senior professorial post. It didn’t help that the UON executive council was made up of all men who seemed to bond in their desire to bash this brilliant woman whose credentials and qualifications out-shown them all. It was thereafter that she threw herself into working for NWCK which itself was largely made up of rural women groups, groups which would become the base from which she would build the Greenbelt Movement. She began to teach grassroot women how to plant tree seedlings and why it was important to their future, to future generations and to the environment. She also turned tree planting into an income generating project that women could benefit from in immediate and practical terms. Her initiative (both the tree planting and training of rural women in the whys and wherefore’s of reforestation) attracted foreign donor support. One big advantage that she had was being in Kenya where Nairobi, the country’s capital was also the international headquarters of UNEP, the United Nations Environment Program, which gave her audience and active support. Wangari would increasingly be in the limelight since the UN had recently launched the first International Women’s Decade, and her role as a grassroot women leader as well as a role model for women everywhere was exemplary. Yet it wasn’t only her credentials and her work with women that made her a rising star. Wangari had that ineffable quality called charisma, which together with her warmth, her wit and consistent commitment to the environment and to women’s active contribution to it made her a clear-cut candidate for leadership awards ranging from the Right Livelihood Prize to the Nobel. But then, living in the land of Daniel arap Moi where so many of her professional peers had either fled the country and been detained and tortured for their supposed roles in failed attempts to bring down the Moi government, had a profound impact on Wangari. She refused to flee Moi’s repressive regime even as she also rejected the notion of towing his line or joining the sycophants who gained favour with the Big Man by parroting his praise. Instead, she was one Kenyan who chose to challenge Moi’s megalomaniac practices. One of her most courageous deeds was standing up against his plan to grab public land in the heart of Nairobi. Uhuru (Freedom) Park was Kenya’s equivalent of New York City’s Central Park and Wangari couldn’t allow Moi to steal land that belonged to the Kenyan people. She had a legacy to protect, particularly as her people had fought for Independence and to win back the land taken by the British under colonialism. It took tremendous courage to challenge Moi, especially as so many of her friends were being detained and disappeared. But Moi’s plan to build a skyscraper in the city park including a monumental statue of himself at its front entrance was more than Wangari could accept. She single-handedly wrote letters to all her foreign donor friends, pleading with them to oppose Moi’s project and promise not to fund it with loans that everybody knew he would never pay back. Moi was furious with Wangari’s success in blocking his scheme. He was particularly incensed with the worldwide media attention that she got for this victory. His wounded ego wouldn’t allow him to forget what she had done, which partly explains why Wangari was nearly killed a few years later when she chose to stand with the protesting mothers of political detainees. Their peaceful protests might have easily been ignored by Moi but for the fact of Wangari’s presence. She attracted international media attention to the mothers’ just cause, the call for the release of their children from Moi’s jails. When Kenya’s must ferocious security force, the GSU, (General Service Unit), arrived at Uhuru Park where the mothers were protesting, they showed no mercy to the women or to Wangari whose head was battered so badly people feared for her life. Fortunately she survived, went on to challenge efforts by Moi’s cronies to grab still more public lands, including Karura Forest on the outskirts of Nairobi. At the same time, she was taking the Greenbelt Movement to other parts of the African region with support from UNEP. By now she was training both women and men to be conservationists and to recognize that deserts are man-made and can also be unmade through the planting of trees. It would primarily be Greenbelt that would earn her the Nobel Prize, but her human rights record also made her ripe for global recognition of this kind. By 2004, Moi had finally resigned after 24 long years and she had finally heeded women’s request of a decade before to run for high office and lead the country. She ventured into national politics and was elected an MP of her Mt Kenya constituency. But when she was appointed Assistant Minister for the Environment, her supporters were not pleased since she had already won the Nobel and they felt she deserved a senior cabinet position. But for better or worse, Wangari’s greatest acclaim and appreciation came from outside of Kenya, not from within. She’d be invited to speak about Greenbelt and the current human rights scene in Kenya everywhere from San Francisco and Stockholm to Tokyo, Toronto and even Beijing. Her autobiography, Unbowed, would become a best-seller and she became the subject of everything from children’s books to documentary films. Tragically, at some point along the way, Wangari acquired ovarian cancer and went for treatment overseas. When she returned she was still strong in spirit and fully committed to continuing her work with the Greenbelt Movement, but she had lost a lot of weight and her body weak. Still beaming with her beautiful smile, Wangari graced the front cover of one of Kenya’s leading magazines just days before she died. The irony of her passing was that the Kenya government under Mwai Kibaki gave her a grandiose state funeral, something that was traditionally reserved exclusively for heads of state. So in death she was given the respect and recognition that had deserved in her lifetime. Fortunately, her work continues with her daughter remaining behind the scenes but still serving to help steer her mother’s global movement that nobody wants to see die. Wangari wrote several outstanding books before she passed on including The Challenge for Africa, which is a comprehensive yet highly readable text about the woes of the region as well as practical prescriptions for solving Africa’s problems. And her last book that came out shortly before she died was Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World. The book itself is a remarkable reflection on the way Wangari had lived her life. For despite having become a devout Christian, the core of her spirituality had come from her forefathers and mothers who had taught her to pray to the one good God, Ngai. This wonderful woman whose integrity and principled stand for social justice, for her people and for the planet is still very much alive in the hearts and minds of Kenyans. She passed on in 2009 but her tree-planting initiatives continue to spread all over the globe and her memory is likely to grow, not diminish, since there are buildings, books, theatre production and even public art exhibitions being dedicated to her life work all the time. She’s a woman who people felt privileged to know and love. May she rest in peace. She gives us hope that Mother Earth can be replenished as long as people learn from Wangari’s example and dedicate their lives to doing the greater good as she did.


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