Wanjira is keeping Wangari Maathai’s legacy alive

On October 8, 2004, Wangari Maathai was travelling to Tetu constituency as she always did every Friday to work with the constituents over the weekend.

Green Belt Movement and Wangare Maathai foundation Board chair, daughter of Wangari Maathai Wanjira Mathai explains that the late Wangari was the first African woman to form a green political party after the Walk from Jevanjee gardens to Uhuru Park during the fourth Wangari Maathai Memorial on Friday, September 25th, 2015. The late Wangari Mathai fought for the conservation of both Jevanjee Gardens and Uhuru Park Freedom Corner as public grounds which should be preserved for planting trees for kenyans all over the country. (PHOTO: ANGELA MAINA/ STANDARD)

She was unaware that on the other side of the world, in Oslo, Norway, Ole Danbolt Mjoes, Chair of the Nobel Prize Committee was making the announcement that Wangari, the then Member of Parliament for Tetu, was the winner of the most prestigious award in the world.

When she received the phone call, she was not even aware that she had been nominated. It was one of the biggest surprises of her life.

"I was not prepared to learn that I had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I wonder whether anybody ever is," she recounted in her book, Unbowed. "The news hit me like a thunderbolt. How was I supposed to handle it? How did this happen? How did they find such a person as me? I could hardly believe it," she recounted in her book, Unbowed.

But Wanjira Mathai, her daughter, believed it.

On Friday, the Green Belt Movement organised a climate change march and yesterday, a family fun day and other activities in Karura Forest to mark her mother's fourth death anniversary.

On that 8th day of October 2004, Wanjira was among the passengers in the vehicle when her mother received the news from the Norwegian Ambassador and like the rest, she was beside herself with joy.

Unlike her mother, however, who shed tears of joy and disbelief, Wanjira knew that she totally deserved it.

"I was so happy for her and genuinely so, not because she is my mother but because for so many years I had seen her work so hard, selflessly, rarely doing anything for herself, but here she was, that all of this had come to be," says Wanjira. "I felt that it couldn't have happened to a nicer, more deserving person."

At 64, Professor Wangari Maathai had just become the first African woman to win the award since its creation in 1901 — but she was relatively used to being the first in many things.

She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate; first female chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976 and the first female associate professor at the University of Nairobi in 1977, among others.

When she won the prize, people the world over were ecstatic.

"It really validated everything she had been doing and because she had been doing it here in Kenya, it was really good for our country," Wanjira says. "It gave impetus to the work, to other activists around the world.

"She was also the first environmentalist to win the Nobel, so you can imagine it did a lot to galvanise the environmentalists' movement. I remember people telling me, 'I was in Peru, I was in a meeting in Mexico', and wherever they were in the world, they stopped to celebrate that one of their own had won the prize."

However, up until she won the Nobel Prize, life had not been rosy for professor Wangari.

"If we are going to shed blood because of our land, we will. We are used to that. Our forefathers shed blood for our land. We will do so. This is my blood." Those are the words she uttered so bitterly, on January 8, 1999 in Karura Forest while protesting by planting trees.

This was largely a peaceful activity but police officers broke it up using brute force, descending on the women she was leading with blows that left her bleeding.

In her struggle for democracy, social and human rights and environmental conservation, she endured insults, savage beatings and imprisonment.

The government of the day had claimed that she was a mad woman. However, her spirit was not dampened and the more they tried to silence her, the louder she became.

She almost single-handedly saved many green spaces such as Uhuru Park, the Jeevanjee Gardens and Karura Forests from excised by politically correct private developers.

The spaces she fought for bitterly, and paid a heavy price for, are today protected by the Kenyan Constitution.

What was it like being a daughter of Wangari Maathai at that time?

"It was difficult. It was frightening to think that they could hurt our mother permanently," says Wanjira, who is the professor's only daughter. She is the first child, and has two brothers.

"Back then, people were not as courageous as she was. She was considered an enemy of the state and some of her friends did not even want to be seen with her."

Despite all this, they grew up normally, and their childhood was relatively normal and not as tumultuous as one would imagine.

"When we were younger, we always assumed that that what she did was what every mother did. They go to work and it must be difficult for everybody's mummy so it did not matter.

"We never really considered that what she was doing was extraordinary.

"We feared for her but fortunately, she always survived and despite all the troubles, she emerged from them, so with time we got used to the fact that she always came back," she says.

Wanjira is the chair of the Green Belt Movement which her mother started in 1977 and serves on the board of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi.

She may be used to the limelight now but back then it was not something she had to deal with.

"Fortunately, my mother's life became public in the late 80s and early 90s as I was just transitioning out of high school and then I left for college in the United States, so I did not experience that much publicity."

She came back from the US and started working with her mother. "I was with her from 2002 every single day and I saw that she was constant in her commitment.

"We had great laughs and great times. I look back and thank God that I worked with her after she got the Nobel Prize because who knew that in 2011 we would lose her?"

On September 25, 2011, professor Wangari succumbed to cancer.

This was a huge loss to the world, but moreso to her family and to the Green Belt Movement.

"It has been a difficult transition. Some days are better than others, but it is not a continuum — sometimes it is better, sometimes it is worse, so it is always been somewhat of a roller coaster," Wanjira says, and adds that at the Green Belt Movement they have been going through an equally difficult transition.

"However, I am delighted to say that the Green Belt Movement is going through a wonderful resurgence under the leadership of the Excecutive Director, Aisha Karanja.

"There is a sense of optimism which was always there but had temporarily been dampened because we were all in collective mourning. It has really improved within the last year."

Wangari's legacy includes the University of Nairobi-based Wangari Maathai Institute of Peace and Environmental Studies which focuses on experiential learning.

The Green Belt Movement has introduced two more gems to her legacy: The Wangari Maathai Foundation and the Wangari Muta Maathai House.

"The Wangari Maathai Foundation has a sole focus of inspiring people to find the power within themselves to be the best that they can be and to understand how they be potent agents of change just like my mother was.

"It is about telling her story not in a way that deifies her, but in a way that tells the lessons from her life."

The Wangari Maathai Foundation has attracted the goodwill of many Kenyans led by the Chief Executive Officer of Acorn Group, Edward Kiraithe who has taken on the project of the Wangari Muta Maathai House as a Corporate Social Responsibility project and has designed the museum.

"It is all on paper, so now we have to make it happen. We also have Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the world's leading museum designers, who have agreed to design the interior of this museum into a beautiful, informative, interactive space," Wanjira says.

The Foundation will be launched on October 6, 2015.

Wanjira started a Twitter campaign dubbed #MyLittleThing that garnered a lot of attention, and prominent personalities such Oprah posted a video of herself speaking about her "little thing" in support of the initiative.

"We're using the #MyLittleThing campaign to raise awareness because like my mother said, 'It is the little things that citizens do that will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.'

"So now go about your business, find out what your little thing is and get on with doing it.

"If we all did our little thing, imagine the kind of transformation if one person could have the kind of impact that Wangari Maathai had. Our country would have a different story."