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Prof Maathai: Warrior for justice with a vision for the future

By Njoki Ndung'u | September 27th 2014

Last Thursday, I was privileged to participate at the well-attended third anniversary of the late Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, best remembered for being a trail blazer and champion on key issues relating to environment and democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Joining her family and friends, the event was a happy one: filled with humorous anecdotes, laughter, songs, poems, tributes and dancing; indeed a fitting remembrance of Prof Maathai’s legacy.

For me, it was an opportunity to share my fond memories of Maathai, a political mentor to many women in political leadership; I included.

I recalled her intense personality that stood out the moment she spoke. She had a poetic dispensation; the timbre of her voice captured your attention. Her stories were and are still captivating. She was all about giving, never receiving. For me, she was the definition of courage.

The Professor was a great teacher; and not just academically speaking. Maathai’s forte was teaching about rights: giving the ordinary woman and man the tools with which to access their rights and the knowledge with which to demand the same from those in authority.

She and the Greenbelt Movement were pioneers in the area of what is now commonly referred to as civic education. It was political and social education infused with the keys to the doors in the school of life that you never find in the official school curriculum.

She brought to the fore of national debate the three great negative ‘isms’; sexism, tribalism and racism, in Kenya and tackled hard issues such as corruption and the monopolisation of political space created by the big man syndrome.

My first recollection of the Professor was in the late 70s at my Aunt’s house, Josephine Kamau, who was also working at The University of Nairobi. Since I was of a different younger generation, I would refer to her as Auntie, a name to be given to friends who were women of my mother’s age.

My mother, like many other women, was in awe of this woman who spoke her mind and criticised the Government loudly at a time when everyone else avoided public discussion on any topic touching on politics.

Many people thought she was unhinged. Surely, what kind of person organised demonstrations when people were too afraid to be seen meeting in groups of more than three persons? Today, when democratic space is so open in this country, this seems a rather ridiculous question, and many young Kenyans cannot imagine such a situation.

But for those of us who do remember, it was a time of repression and silence and she was a scary person to know, because she was so fearless.

The first time I was struck by a bolt of Maathai’s lightning was during the hearing of the infamous late SM Otieno case, where his widow, the late Wambui Otieno, was fighting for her rights as a wife, mother, and woman in the highest courts of the land.

Not one single so-called women’s rights organisation lifted a finger to help. Any woman leader worth their salt at the time shied away from the issue; but not Maathai. In the face of abuse from male politicians and belittlement from many of her peers, she mobilised for support for Wambui throughout the country, and started a petition.

It was the first petition I had ever signed, and my baptism into political activism. She challenged the male dominated status quo and got such a verbal whipping from the powers that be, that everyone ran for the trees. But not Maathai.

David against Goliath

Acknowledging it was an uphill task, she never gave up. In her autobiography, Unbowed, she states: “It was easy to persecute me without people feeling ashamed. It was easy to vilify me and project me as a woman who was not following the tradition of a ‘good African woman’ and as a highly educated elitist who was trying to show innocent African women ways of doing things that were not acceptable to African men”.

Yet in all her battles, from Wambui’s case, to the violent confrontation that saved Karura Forest to her campaign to save Uhuru Park, she stood firm; like David against Goliath. In fact, Maathai versus the powerful male chauvinist institutionalised status quo, was David against Goliath.

She clothed herself with stubbornness, armed herself with prayer and determination and called for her faith to be internal strength. In her book she remembers: “I don’t really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me that there is a problem, and I have got to do something about it. I think that is what I would call the God in me.”

Like the biblical David, she persevered and won. None of her adversaries saw it coming; certainly, they underestimated this warrior for justice with a vision for the future. I like to think that key players in positions of authority and who had lashed out at Wangari have since learned a number of lessons: one, pick your fights carefully; two, you can’t put a good woman down; three, never fight a woman in public and four, if you choose to ignore point number three, take Maathai’s advise and use what you have from your neck upwards; your brain, and not downwards; your ego!

Certainly, she was vindicated when she succeeded but more particularly when she won the Nobel Peace Prize. We were then colleagues in the 9th Parliament and it was terribly funny to see her political foes praising her, promising to plant trees in her honor, and falling over themselves trying to get a selfie with her.

Despite all the abuse they had heaped on her in the past, she was gracious and forgiving, accepting warmly their congratulations.

The fight for the environment, good governance and peace was a lifetime commitment for Maathai that came at great personal and professional cost.

Karura Forest is poignant in this context where she was violently attacked by goons and she shed her blood and was unceremoniously dismissed from her position at the university. At least, none of this was in vain.

Much of Wangari Maathai’s philosophy and values have been captured within the framework of the Constitution 2010. Her passion for patriotism and sustainable development are captured in the national values under Article 10. The Chapters on the Environment and Land capture her trajectory in environmental justice.

The Bill of Rights reflects the protection for which she worked so hard to teach us. A good liveable environment is now written into our primary document both as a right and an existential legacy for future generations.

Maathai always urged people to plant trees as a symbol of commitment to protecting the natural environment. Let us honour her legacy by marking important occasions (births, deaths, birthdays, graduations, rites of passage etc.) with the planting of indigenous trees.

As part of celebrating the life and legacy of Prof Wangari Maathai, I watched the film “Taking Root”, a documentary on the life and work of Maathai. It is a film that should be shared with all Kenyans through our broadcast media and stocked in the libraries of all public offices and schools.

It is an excellent tribute to Kenya’s very own Nobel Prize winner that reminds us that her indomitable spirit still lives amongst us.

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