Wangari Maathai was a rebel with a cause

By Maurice Maina

If life has a definition, then Maathai epitomised this definition.

In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech she concluded by reflecting on her childhood experience: "I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother. I would drink water straight from the stream. Playing among the arrowroot leaves I tried in vain to pick up the strands of frogs’ eggs, believing they were beads. But every time I put my little fingers under them they would break."

"Later, I saw thousands of tadpoles: black, energetic and wriggling through the clear water against the background of the brown earth. This is the world I inherited from my parents."

And true to her childhood experiences, she has bequeathed this generation what she could in her own way. She has galvanised the power of nature to teach humanity that peace comes by being at harmony with nature.

The world over, peace is elusive.

In the Middle East, it is about oil; in Africa, hunger; in the West it is about maintaining hegemony in the control of vital resources.

Maathai had a lesson for all.

On a sad note, she observed that over 50 years later, the stream she had talked about has dried up, forcing women to "walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost."

She was later to galvanise her early experiences to champion for peace in her native country, Kenya.

The challenge, she said, "is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder."

Talking about the Green Belt Movement, which she helped establish, Prof Maathai said: "As we progressively understood the causes of environmental degradation, we saw the need for good governance.

Indeed, the state of any county’s environment is a reflection of the kind of governance in place, and without good governance there can be no peace. Many countries, which have poor governance systems, are also likely to have conflicts and poor laws protecting the environment."

Courage, resilience

She energetically advocated tree planting for fuel, food, shelter, and income to support their children’s education and household needs.

"The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds. Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family."

"In 2002, the courage, resilience, patience and commitment of members of Green Belt Movement, other civil society organisations, and the Kenyan public culminated in the peaceful transition to a democratic government and laid the foundation for a more stable society," she observed.

Born in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri, she was later to benefit from what became known as the Kennedy Airlift or Airlift Africa, becoming one of about three hundred Kenyans chosen to study at American universities in September 1960.

The programme was a brainchild of politicians, such as Tom Mboya, with the support of John F Kennedy, then a United States Senator.

She liberally acknowledged her respect for "fellow African Peace laureates, Presidents Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the late Chief Albert Luthuli, the late Anwar Sadat and the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan."

Many Kenyans will remember her for her fierce opposition to autocracy during the single party era of the 1980s and 1990s.

At one time she led fellow women in stripping naked (a curse in the African tradition) at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, advocating for release of political prisoners.

Today, we can say that a hero lived among us. Hers is an enduring lesson for all of us. Peace is not a mirage if we do the little things that we can in our immediate environment.

The writer is a commentator on social and political issues.

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