Why Wangari Maathai's legacy will stand the test of timeBy PHILIP OCHIENG | Monday, September 26 2011 at 16:48
On September 25, one of Kenya’s finest and most prolific thinkers stopped thinking. Prof Wangari Maathai, who succumbed to cancer of the ovary at a Nairobi hospital, was among Kenya’s greatest veterinary scientists and most dedicated campaigners for the world’s – especially Kenya’s -- environmental health.
The official world recently acknowledged her career achievements and professional excellence when Oslo bestowed on her the Nobel Peace Prize -- the acme of all international accolades -- to crown her legacy as the founder of Kenya’s Greenbelt Movement. How Green Was My Valley after Wangari had taken charge of it!
Many people do not see the link between peace and a robust neighbourhood. They cannot grasp the vital fact that even the political tranquillity for which Kenyans yearn so desperately is possible only when the national tummy is full – which, in turn, is possible only when our soil and atmosphere are forthcoming and our flora and fauna are thriving.
I first met Mary-Jo Wangari in Nairobi as we prepared for the famous series of airlifts that a black-Jewish consortium of Tom Mboya, Julius Kiano, Harry Belafonte, Frank Montero, Sidney Poitier, Jackie Robinson, Bill Scheinman, Cora Weiss and others organised for young Kenyans to pursue varsity education on various American campuses.
I was among the first 81 which landed in New York City in 1959. Barack Obama Senior had travelled the year before in an arrangement which had nothing to do with the Mboya initiative. In her autobiographical sketch, Mary-Jo relates that she came only in the second airlift (l960) – to follow the course that would lead her to her expertise as an animal physician.
My boon friend Mwangi Maathai – who would later serve as the Langata MP -- came to the US in yet another of the airlifts. He and Mary-Jo married as soon as they returned to Kenya. Though they later divorced, I know from Mwangi that they maintained a very close friendship. For I have just edited for him an engrossing book on poverty.
Yet, though my personal relationship with Prof Wangari Maathai has been very warm during her last decade of life, there was a time – when I edited the Kenya Times – when it was quite wintry. What was the matter? It is that I was on the other side of her virulent opposition to a plan by the Times to build a towering headquarters right in the middle of Nairobi’s Uhuru Park.
Spearheaded by President Moi, Education minister Peter Oloo Aringo and Times chairman Jared Kangwana, the plan occasioned a loud national and international outrage – though that alone could not have deterred the Nyayo philosopher. The plan was dropped only at the discovery that its political economy would be suicidal.
I have my own theory of environmental conservation which often contradicted Wangari’s statements and activities. But, from the wisdom of hindsight, I must admit that, concerning this particular case, Wangari was right and I was wrong. A monolith in the middle of the city’s embodiment of greenery would have posed a serious affront to its health.
However, as we resumed our friendship, I vigorously encouraged Prof Maathai to pursue her interest in contesting the presidency. In the event, she did not prove a threat to any of the vested interests –Mwai Kibaki (the incumbent), Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka.
But, of all the women who have ever expressed an interest in State House, Wangari Maathai was always my first choice. She was acutely intelligent, extraordinarily knowledgeable and deeply committed and she had a highly educated moral consciousness. What’s more, she had that touch of tenderness which only a woman can provide at State House.
But now that death has deprived me of her, what can I do but lament – as with Marcus Antonius when his friend Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated – “Whence cometh such another?”
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