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


  1. Beautiful piece! Wonderful to get a personal perspective on such an influential personality...

  2. Yes, wonderfully written! I get a sense of the political vaccuum in Kenya, one more profound than I had envisioned as it does not recognize a great woman like Wangari Maathai. It seems to me that they ignored her because she was a threat to people in power who had an interest in making money; it was in their interest to push her out of the picture entirely. Sadly, few people with morals do not have the guile to make it in politics--Gandhiji is one person who had morals and could succeed; notwithstanding her stalled political career and presence in the social and political landscape in Kenya, the trees she helped plant will continue to speak of her for centuries to come.

  3. She had often said in public interviews that the AIDS virus was created by the American government (helped by other Western governments ofcourse), a Western complot to wipe out black people. The same American government whose scholarship enabled her (and thousands of African people) to attend a university in America.