Wangari Maathai: Death of an iconBy MWENDA wa MICHENI | Monday, September 26 2011 at 11:18
The late evening news of the death of Prof Wangari Muta Maathai, Africa's first woman Nobel laureate and Kenya's foremost environmental conservationist was a shocker. This is especially because her illness was not public.
"Professor Maathai's departure is untimely and a very great loss to all who knew her - as a mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine; or who admired her determination to make the world a more peaceful, healthier, and better place," read a statement from the Green Belt movement, announcing her death.
A politician, a professor of veterinary medicine and conservationists, all rolled together, Prof Wangari is best known for sowing the grassroots based Green Belt Movement that empowers ordinary Kenyans to conserve environment as a way of political and cultural emancipation.
Her ingenious illustration of the interconnectedness between culture, politics, economics and environment has been a ground-breaking approach to conservation, winning her several accolades.
In her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 2004, Wangari moved thousands to tears as she pointed out the ugly acts of destruction that man had caused mother nature; warning that man was on his way to extinction unless that was reversed.
And the disappearance of the village well, in Tetu District of Kenya, painted the picture of destruction perfectly. In her childhood, she recalled with palpable nostalgia, there were hundreds of tadpoles swimming freely in the then lively village well. A few decades later in 2004, the tadpoles that once enjoyed the freshness of the marshy water had disappeared, just like the water and the green growths that decorated it.
She accused human activities around the well for the disappearance, and even went further to explain how that had a lot to do with disruption of her people's way of life.
As a Nobel Laureate, Prof Wangari went on with her passionate conservation crusades, especially in the context of global warming, planting trees at every available opportunity.
Since 2008, when she stepped out of Kenya's parliamentary politics, the 71-year-old professor went global. With the number of international assignments she was handling, Wangari was rare in Nairobi.
One day she was attending to issues of the Congo Basin, as the roving ambassador of the Congo Basin, a role bestowed on her by Congo Brazzaville's President Denis Sassou Ngeuso in 2005; another day she was making presentations at the UN meetings, especially on her role as the UN Secretary General's Advisory Board on Disarmament, or just speaking to the media, on diverse issues. She had a full diary.
"It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in." These were Wangari's words that guided her struggle for a liberated environment.
In her view, Kenya's environmental degradation started with cultural degradation that resulted from displacement occasioned by colonisation. When the settlers came in and pushed indigenous communities from their way of life, they also took away the people's way of life that had a clever way of environmental conservation.
Introduction of new species, most of which were not supportive of the ecosystem, plus exploitation of natural resources, worsened the situation.
Entry of post independence regimes worsened the situation, with individual politicians carving out forests resources for own use. This continued to affect the ecosystems, paving the way for serious environmental degradation that remains a major concern.
To address environmental degradation, Wangari, initiated the Green Belt Movement in 1977. This is a self propelling grassroots movement that put its membership on a collision course with the President Daniel arap Moi.
When she worked with women under the National Council of Women of Kenya as its chairperson between 1981 and 87, the idea of involving grassroots women in conservation become even clearer.
In groups, the women would meet, learn the intricacies of the ecosystem and why tree planting would eventually improve their livelihoods. Through the Green Belt Movement, she assisted women in planting 20 to 30 million trees on their farms and on schools and church compounds
Realising how interlinked conservation was to politics, the women went ahead to even confront political issues of discrimination, corruption and resource grabbing by the those close to power.
In 1988, a group of women, led by Prof Wangari, stopped the construction of a mega building in Nairobi's Uhuru Park, after applying sustained pressure.
Later, the Greenbelt Movement was instrumental in the push for release of political prisoners, considered as the tipping point in Kenya's politics that eventually delivered multi-partyism and a new constitution years later.
Between 2002 and 2008, she was an assistant minister in President Mwai Kibaki's government, but remained focused on her work and did not hesitate to criticise when the government erred. She was also the voice of reason in most instances, especially on matters that divided the different axis of the ruling Narc, one leaning towards President Mwai Kibaki, the other towards Mr. Raila Odinga.
Wangari's story story of struggle is well documented in several books including: The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (2003); Unbowed (2006), her autobiography and The Challenge for Africa (2008).
There is also Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (2010) that tells the story of the Green Movement and how it can work elsewhere and Kinyanjui Kombani's Mother of Trees.
Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, an award winning documentary by Lisa Merton and Alan Dater captures Wangari's world, explaining the conservationist's convictions in a deep, engaging way.
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