Monday, September 26, 2011

Take a Bow, Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai is no more. 

When she won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004, the world sat up and noticed her and somewhere in my consciousness, she registered. But it was not until I came to Kenya and read about her work and saw first-hand the legacy of her tireless crusade against environmental degradation that I realized what a phenomenon she was. 

I was pursuing my Master’s degree in Environment and Ecology and had to appear for my second and final year examination from here and chose her Green Belt Movement (GBM) as the topic for my thesis. The title of my thesis was: ‘Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement in Kenya – A model for climate change mitigation for poor and developing countries of Africa’. I was secretly hoping that I get to meet my idol under the pretext of doing the thesis, and engage with her more often, as I went along. I wrote a letter to GBM seeking permission and asking if I could get a guide from their organization for my thesis. In a prompt reply, I was told that they would have loved to do so but did not have adequate personnel to undertake such an exercise, expressed regret, and wished me well.

I decided  to go ahead with my thesis without a guide, but in the course of pursuing it, I read a lot about her work and talked about it to people around. I read her memoirs, “Unbowed – A Woman's Story”  in which she narrates how her tree planting mission came about. In 1977, Wangari’s husband was campaigning for election and one of his prominent election promises happened to be employment for people in his constituency. It became an article of faith with Wangari to help him fulfill his promise and she decided to do something about it. She translated her ever-abiding love for nature and environment into a practical solution to  provide livelihood options for local communities. She started a scheme whereby people would plant indigenous trees and start tree nurseries to reverse forest degradation while making them productive. She involved women from local community; there were stumbling blocks in that people planted trees alright but did not care for them enough or did not have the necessary expertise to make them flourish. She paid stipend, introduced monetary incentives and had local experts monitor plantations in a sustained manner to achieve better results. After trial and error, she finally succeeded and her campaign took off in a big way such that a localized experiment became a nation-wide campaign. In nearly three decades, the grassroots model of GBM extended to other countries in Africa and even protects the Congo Basin Rainforests, today.

Thus, GBM actually started as a project to generate employment to fulfill an election promise which is often empty bait by politicians to get voted into power. Subsequently, Wangari Maathai, herself, had a tryst with politics when she became the Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources during 2003- 2005. In the course of her green movement, she often set on a collision course against vested interests of private land lords, land grabbers in the Government and corporate companies. She also crossed swords with then President Daniel Arap Moi when nobody dared to oppose him. She had become a threat to people in powerful places.

Here was a woman who had a pulse on the people of her country, had boundless energy to tackle problems and find solutions, and who had her heart in the right place, I gathered from what I read. But, ironically, it is here, in Kenya that I heard very little of her. She did not figure on the pages of any newspaper and in the three years that I have been here I do not recall any footage or sound bytes on TV Channels, either. It was almost as though she was a 'spent force' who had lost her relevance in the current scenario. I only heard of her from the pulpit of Copenhagen Climate Change Conference or from the virtual pages of her Green Belt Movement e-zine. With an achievement such as hers - she fought for sustainable development, democracy, livelihood and women's rights - and an active public life during the peak of her green movement, I often wondered why she did not shine on the political firmament.

I strongly believed that Wangari Maathai was "President material" as she had the makings of a true leader. Moreover, seeing the vacuum in political leadership and governance here,  I felt doubly sure that Prof.  Maathai could be that Messiah  the country is in dire need of. I couldn’t fathom the reason why she merged into the background and I started enquiring about it asking anyone – from the media to environment lobby, who would have something to say about it. I encountered many reasons for this “non-performance”. One, an extreme and cynical view was that she had sold her soul for money; the Nobel Prize went to her head! I straightway discounted that; nothing that I had read about her work and character seemed to suggest that and canards like that simply reeked of idle insensitivity. When I posed the same question to an environmentalist friend, a Kenyan, she said: “She is not prominent in political life because she is a woman.” And I got my answer. She is not just a woman, but a conscientious woman - morally upright - capable of upsetting the political applecart, of being a real threat to the power-hungry. 

I tried to seek a meeting with Wangari Maathai, many times, but was often told that she was out of the country. (I almost wondered if that was one of the reasons why she wasn’t active politically anymore.) An opportunity presented itself, when Karura Forest – an urban forest - was thrown open to public for recreation, recently. This was one of her success stories when she had protested against the degazetting of the  land by the government and the construction lobby priming for residential projects in this rare indigenous forest in the heart of Nairobi, in 1999. She was beaten by the police and was severely injured during a dramatic protest. This evoked public sympathy and stalled the destruction of Nairobi’s green lung. This time, nearly 12 years later, she was to be the Chief Guest to inaugurate the public opening of Karura Forest and I was hoping to meet her. Unfortunately, she did not turn up as she was sick. I had missed another opportunity to meet her.

Like many in this country, I did not know that she was ailing in her final days, fighting her own private battle, that she had cancer. Not many cared. The country of her birth and karma gave her a raw deal even as the world, thankfully, looked up to this great woman. 

Kenya is going through tumultuous times; some of the top leaders are being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for 2008 post-election violence. The country is embroiled in corruption controversies and MPs are demanding reimbursement of tax arrears when a large part of the Nation - North Kenya - is undergoing one of the severest droughts in several decades. The atmosphere for the forthcoming elections in 2012 is surcharged with passions. In such a claustrophobic and chauvinistic atmosphere, Wangari Maathai, the woman, did not stand a chance, perhaps.

But, I still feel Wangari Maathai could have been the answer; she could have been a great
Chief executive to steer the nation to greater heights, but alas, Kenya has now lost its chance.

“Planting a tree for me is a sign of hope and a sign that as long as we are taking action, we can make a difference.” Prof. Wangari Maathai

Friday, September 23, 2011

New-Age Darwin

Olorgesailie Prehistoric site of the Homo erectus in Kenya
Richard Leakey

The differences among the peoples of the world are only skin-deep. This statement does not come from a pastor or a pundit, not from a politician either, but an anthropologist neck-deep in work on hominid fossils in Kenya. The ‘high priest’ of paleoanthropology, himself, Richard Leakey is placing in perspective the morphological changes that have accrued among humans - over millennia - that inhabit diverse continents and habitats, and that in the modern world of intolerance and one-upmanship lead to discrimination  - racial or civilizational. It is only right that a man who has spent his life-time studying human evolution and unearthing fossils of our prehistoric ancestors should delicately dust off the debris of accumulated prejudices settled over mankind and see this reality in its starkness.

I am excited to hear him - finally - having seen the Prehistory section of the National Museum at Nairobi and having been a member of Kenya Museum Society – both of which were founded by him. Here he was in person, a giant of a man, both literally and figuratively, walking on his prosthetic legs (an outcome of an air crash in 1993 which many believed was an act of sabotage to stop him in his tracks as the fearless Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service when he curbed ivory poaching successfully) and talking with a twinkle in his eyes. For the next hour-and-a-half, I am captivated by Richard Leakey’s take on a serious scientific discipline of Human Origins rendered humourously and at times, self-deprecatingly like when he talks of his lack of technology savvy. And though I have read it before, I get goose bumps when I hear it from the horse’s mouth that early humans originated in the savannas of Central and East Africa!

In one of his early finds of a human cranium, Richard was pooh-poohed when he suggested that it resembled Caucasians in its features as it went completely against the grain of Western and Caucasian supremacy! Anthropology, itself, saw a decline in the post WWII era due to its controversial ties with colonial (and racist) agenda and has come into its own only in the last few decades, I learn. Richard is a strong votary of Out of Africa theory which says that it was from sub-Saharan Africa that Homo sapiens moved out to Europe, Eurasia and other parts of the world. He says, dramatically, “Take a genetic swab from any of your mouths and you’ll trace your ancestry to the African pre-humans.”

Study of Human Origins involves many diverse enterprises such as archaeology, geology, paleontology, genetics, botany, ecology and so on, and it is this very multidisciplinary approach that has led to many  incontrovertible conclusions. It is now believed that evidences from fossils, genes and language all point to the African origin of modern humans in the relatively recent past.

To quote another anthropologist, John Reader, “Geneticists conclude that the entire population of the modern world descended from a relatively small group of people that left Africa 100, 000 years ago.” In his phenomenal book: ‘Africa – A biography of the continent’, he writes: “Furthermore, they (geneticists) said that every human being alive today carries the mitochondrial DNA of just one African woman who lived more than 10,000 generations ago.” In that context, Richard is known to have framed the famous premise that says: 'Africa was not discovered by Europeans, Africa created them!'

Richard’s parents – the famous Louis and Mary Leakey – worked in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and Northern Tanzania and their spectacular finds at the Olduvai Gorge (one of the places I have been fortunate to visit, but more about it in another blog) have created archaeological history. While Richard had a headstart working under their tutelage, he soon emerged out of their shadows and carved a niche for himself with his work on the shores of Lake Turkana, which he calls “a rich treasure trove of pre-human fossils”. Many experts, today, believe that the Eastern part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley is indeed the cradle of humankind as more fossil evidence is found here than anywhere else in Africa.

For nearly four decades, Richard Leakey and his team have worked in the Turkana basin in Northern Kenya unearthing human skulls and skeletons to piece together a fascinating chapter in the history of Human Evolution. It is here that nearly 16,000 fossil specimens have been obtained, the most important and significant find being the “Turkana Boy”. This is an almost complete skeleton of a 12-year old boy who lived 1.6 million years ago on the western shores of Lake Turkana. The Turkana boy is a specimen of Homo erectus, the precursor to the Homo sapiens or the modern man. Today, Koobi Fora on the eastern shores of the lake is one of the most important sites, fossil dense, synonymous with the Origin of Humans project in Kenya. This is the fertile ground where fossil remains of man, mammals and stone tools are mired tracing our ancestry back to Homo erectus, Homo habilis and even Australopithecine (pre-humans that were deemed to be the bridge between primates and man) eras.

The Turkana Basin Institute, under the leadership of Richard Leakey has created a self-sufficient facility where all the specimens are preserved in situ with no need whatsoever to take them out of Turkana for research purposes. Leakey has co-opted local communities and research students for the projects in a holistic approach. In this hallowed ground, a minefield of discoveries await, a real-time jigsaw puzzle that when unraveled will throw light anew on the Origin of Human Species. And one day, I hope I get to visit this place.

Richard Leakey figures in Time Magazine's list of 100 Greatest Minds of the 20th Century.