It’s time to take forward Maathai’s conservation bid

April is well under way and the long rains are lingering. The drought in Turkana and other northern counties put many families and pastoralists at risk. It sent shock waves across the nation. Although the government and other stakeholders are delivering essential food and water aid to mitigate effects of famine, we all know that long-term solutions are going to be hard to implement.

Kenya is growing arid by the year, as is the whole of the Horn of Africa, as are entire regions in our continent, with formerly water rich Cape Town gone completely dry. Similar trends can be seen elsewhere, from Australia’s water scarcity, through extreme weather conditions in the US, to melting glaciers in Greenland and Pakistan.

Just like many Southeast Asian lands bordering the Indian Ocean, we also experience rising sea levels that are slowly drowning our beaches, endangering tourism and putting heritage sites like Fort Jesus in Mombasa at risk.

Against such devastating realities, this month also presages an opportunity for change. Born on April 1, 1940, the late Nobel Laureate Prof Wangari Maathai was a bold social entrepreneur and a prophet of our age. She should also serve as a role model for the youth of our time.

Setting up the Green Belt Movement as early as 1977, she appreciated the value of nature in itself and the menace of deforestation. Just for that we should be grateful! Can you imagine Karura forest in Nairobi without trees, which she protected against land grabbers?

But Wangari was not just an activist. She had foresight that was not only absent from her compatriots, but also denied and even ridiculed by them: “tree hugger… angry lady…”. Prof Maathai faced same tribulations as our prophets, rising up against a spoiled and selfish mob. When Jeremiah’s message was rejected, his body later abused, he thought: “This wicked people, who refuse to listen to my words, who walk in the stubbornness of their hearts and have gone after other gods to serve them and to bow down to them” (Jeremiah 13:10).

The false gods of today include blind consumerism, wastefulness and neglect of our natural resources. However, just like Jeremiah, our own green prophet was relentless!

She knew her fight was not just about conservation of Kenya’s natural beauty. Science teaches us today that the world’s forests capture a significant part of the CO2 emissions from our vehicles, farming and industry, preventing global warming from rising. Our trees not only house the rich fauna that makes Kenya a tourist attraction, but they are essential to mitigate aridification and desertification.  

Many politicians – in Africa and elsewhere – deny and ignore those messages, expecting short term gains from polluting industries and giving in to powerful lobbies. Fortunately, President Uhuru Kenyatta neither denies nor ignores those messages.

He understands the science and is incorporating Maathai’s life’s work by committing to responsible management of our natural resources. He has an ambitious reforestation campaign and a strict ban on plastic products. Kenya going far beyond the minimum set in the Paris Climate Agreement.

Furthermore, as mentioned in his State of the Nation address: Kenya is at the global forefront of green energy, with 85 per cent of our energy coming from renewable resources. Seventy-nine years ago, April started with the birth of a modern prophet. Her pioneering work was recognised with multiple awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, which she was the first African woman to receive. Yet, her message cannot be carried alone by the government. It requires fresh messengers to spread widely, be popularised and reshape reality.

This week, Ann Mwangi Mvurya, a second-year law student, became the first female student to lead the University of Nairobi Students Association. We count on her and others to carry through the green revolution. It won’t be easy, but isn’t taking the hard road exactly what we expect from young and inspiring leaders? 

We are taught to “preach the word, be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when people will not endure sound teaching... They will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths” (2Timo 4:1-4). That is the burden our leaders have to accept.

-The writer is a graduate of Human Resource from USIU.

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Green Belt MovementEnvironmental ConservationWangari Maathai