I personally knew Professor Wangari Maathai, long before the world had fully acknowledged her struggles.
I was in university when she took on the Kanu Government for attempting to put up a 60-storey building in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. And even though matters environment had not engulfed my inner man, I was fascinated that an ‘ordinary soul’ had dared to go against the wishes of baba na mama (euphemism for the then mighty Kanu Party). While schooling at the University of Nairobi, we would find immense excitement as we ganged up to stage riots over issues we thought were important, hardly did environmental issues in general or Wangari Maathai’s causes in particular, feature as we staged one strikes after another. Indeed, few of us were dedicated to any cause.
Our lives’ journeys were to come to a confluence when I became an environmental reporter with The EastAfrican and later a columnist with Daily Nation. This was in the early 2000s. Around the time, the Moi Regime had stubbornly refused to see the sense in sparing the last of the country’s ecosystems. Although Kanu was in the twighlight of its rule, its intransigence about having its way wapende wasipende was legendary. To crown its folly, the regime came up with one devious anti-environment scheme after another. If it was not the grabbing and destruction of Karura Forest, it was Ngong Forest, if not Ngong, it was Mount Kenya Forests, Marmanet, Sirimoni, Kaptagat, Maasai Mau and so on ad nauseum.
And having long championed the ‘rights’ of trees through the GreenBelt Movement, Wangari Maathai’s work then was cut out for her. And she proved beyond any doubt that she was made of stuff that hardly made lesser mortals. As she crossed rivers, valleys as well as Moi/Kanu’s no-go-zones, she gave us scribes and other ‘armchair’ environmentalists a chance to cut our teeth. We needed no motivation to make her life and struggles, the focus of our pens. And we outdid ourselves to coin words and phrases to describe her daring maneuvers.
She had also taken note and was happy and willing to interact more closely with ‘pen soldiers.’ She would occasionally invite us herself or would cause us to be invited to cover her activities. But we needed no invitation particularly because the story of Kanu regime’s decision to use the country’s forest estate as political capital made important reading. For example, in one mad move announced in the Kenya Gazette Supplement of February 16, 2001, the regime slashed off a whooping 167,000 acres from the country’s forests estate. And for months to come, the story occupied prime time on radio and TV as well as acres of space in print media.
By the time NARC floored the unpopular Kanu in December 2002, Wangari had not only cut a niche for herself, but had long become a household name. And the people of Tetu Constituency recognized and rewarded her struggles when they elected her to represent them in the National Assembly. Later, the NARC government gave her the Assistant Environment Minister Portfolio which sort of ‘silenced’ her as she now found herself in the unfamiliar world of voicing the official line as was required of her through the so-called ‘collective responsibility.’
While working as an assistant minister, I was to accompany Prof Maathai when she headed a delegation to South Africa on a fact-finding mission about titanium-mining in the country’s Richards Bay area. This was meant to be an ‘eye opener’ for a government that had failed to resolve the nagging issues surrounding a titanium mining project that was to be undertaken by Tiomin Resources Inc, a Canadian company, at Kwale area in the Coast. As we toured Richards Bay, it dawned on me that removing Prof Maathai from the world of activism had not blunted her resolve for matters environment and for social justice. She awed me as she kept making comments and asking questions that made the other Kenyan dignitaries uneasy. However, her sentiments spoke to my own journalistic concerns over the titanium mining saga.
I also realized that though she could have been many things to many people, she was a stickler for detail. While other dignitaries appeared to doze off from being significantly indulged by our hosts, Prof Maathai kept them (our hosts) on toes as she asked one awkward question after another. She was particularly keen to know what it would take for Kenya to realise the full value of the titanium ores in Kwale District. And upon learning that Kenya needed to ask the Canadian company to add value to the ore locally, she was heard, on a number of occasions, to voice the opinion that we should not sell the ore for a song.
But her main concern then, as she often told other members of the delegation, was whether Tiomin would end up restoring as much of the original environment as possible once it had exhausted the mineral deposits – after 14 years. She often said that it would be unforgivable were Tiomin to leave behind gaping craters in the once pristine, undisturbed Kwale environment.
Our tour lasted a week.
Sadly, all of Prof Maathai’s concerns and effort appeared to come to nothing. After the tour, the delegation was supposed to compile and present its findings to the government so that they could form the basis for a decision on whether to license the company or not. The findings were also to be discussed before a national consultative forum. But this was not to be. Just days after our trip, the government announced to the chagrin of many an activist that it had issued Tiomin with a mining permit. Curiously, the announcement came the same day a national forum had been organised to discuss the delegation’s findings. Everybody was taken aback, with most questioning the logic behind sending such a high-powered delegation to South Africa in the first place.
I was to later to publish an exclusive report that revealed the behind-the-scenes maneuverings that culminated in the Canadian company getting the permit. My story was based on a letter written by a top official in the civil service. But upon reading the story, key figures in the then relatively new government were unhappy and pointed fingers at Prof Maathai, accusing her of leaking the contents of the confidential letter. This was the letter that awarded Tiomin the permit. It was later revealed that there was a falling out between her and her boss, the late Dr Newton Kulundu. And for some reasons unknown to us, Prof Maathai later kept an unusually low profile that she apparently maintained for much of the time she served as an assistant minister and a member of Parliament for Tetu.
Activism, not mainstream politics, many believe, was more of Prof Maathai’s cup of tea. And she seemed to concur. For instance, at one time, she was publicly attacked by fellow parliamentarians and her constituents for voicing her opposition to cultivation of Kenya’s forests through the shamba system. Some of her constituents did not forgive her for it and made it known to all and sundry. She was to express her frustration that national leaders and the general public could not appreciate the danger the country faced once the remaining pockets of forests were completely depleted. And as droughts become more frequent sometimes alternating with devastating floods, it is now clear that her concern was prophetic.
In private conversation in her office in Nairobi’s City Centre in late 2008, Prof Maathai had expressed to me how deeply she was frustrated with this seemingly narrow space-time perspective. She condemned the country’s leadership for failing to comprehend how closely inter-linked human life were with ecosystems and the whole web of life. At some point during a debate in parliament, she offered to give up her parliamentary seat rather than watch the continuation of government-led destruction of forests.
Prof Maathai never shied from controversy. She never shirked fight in the cause of the voiceless trees and on behalf of the life-nurturing environment. She was, as Shakespeare once wrote, made of “sterner stuff.” She had demonstrated this long before matters environment became the in-thing. When everyone else cowered before the wrath of an all-powerful Moi, the professor of veterinary medicine stood her ground to challenge the government’s move to convert Central Park, the historic park in Nairobi, into a 60-storey office and commercial complex. This was in 1989 and following her campaign, many leading political figures, including Moi himself, openly ridiculed her, with some parliamentarians going to the extent of threatening her with female genital mutilation.
She emerged the victor. But not before she had made the fight for the park an international one by asking governments whose nationals wanted to fund the project the question: “why would you want to destroy a small park in Nairobi?”
The Karura Forest was another arena where Prof Maathai clashed with a group of powerful government functionaries who had by then attained the infamous tag of “hackers” of Kenya’s destiny. They had allocated a substantial section of the over 1,000-acre forest to their cronies and friends through a host of what later emerged to be dubious companies. Prof Maathai and fellow activists won the fight in the face of danger to their lives. But it was not before the police had beaten and pulled her hair off.
Her high-profile environmental battles aside, few realise how much she had influenced pro-environment activities in Kenya’s rural area. For instance, in a number of Meru districts, residents attribute a unique banana-planting technique to her Green Belt Movement. Secondly, in most trading centres of Nyandarua district, GreenBelt Movement’s colours and posters implored residents to plant trees and protect the environment.
Indeed, it was her work with poor rural women that the Nobel Committee, cited in late 2004 when it awarded her the famous peace prize. The Committee had said, “For nearly 30 years, she (Prof Maathai) has mobilised poor women to plant 30 million trees.”
I was to interact more closely again in late 2004 when she invited me to join her Nobel Peace Secretariat that was hosted at a famous Nairobi hotel. Our boss was the seasoned journalist, Salim Lone who, for a brief period, trained Wangari on how to handle the media. My work then was to prepare briefs and talking points for her particularly on the connections between peace and the environment. It was then that the concept of Peace Trees, that had been championed for years by her district mate, the late Kariuki Thuku together with Sultan Somjee of AFRIPAD, was introduced to the Professor. Somjeee and AFRIPAD had researched on how different pastoralist groups employed the concept for about 10 years. Wangari readily adopted it and championed it to hordes of dignitaries who visited her. In essence, the concept promoted the rich peace-making traditions among African societies who had continued to use special trees to create and preserve peace both in the pre-colonial and post-colonial periods. Days after Prof Maathai received the Prize, she would readily narrate its virtues to ambassadors, high commissioners and other dignitaries and was always proud to demonstrate how this worked as she gave them seedlings of peace trees to take back to their home countries.
Later, as I covered the Global Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland in 2008, I was to realize the truth behind the Biblical saying that ‘no prophet is ever recognized in their home towns.’ Crowds of reporters, representatives of governments as well as people in the NGO world would line up to beg for autographs and photo opportunities with Maathai. But even though I stood in the crowd, she acknowledged by presence and shouted greetings in Gikuyu language which made other journalists to look my way. It was then that I learned she had been appointed to the high-profile position as the Good Will Ambassador for the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem. And for some reason, the West so valued her role that at some point, the British government devoted as much as £50 million (Ksh7.9 billion) for the Congo Project in 2007.
But back home, the good professor had almost become a ‘commoner’ with some MPs deriding her variously for her stand on various national and social justice issues. But as Mahatma Ghandi once said, though they fought her, they could not ignore her.
May her restless spirit find the rest she lacked as she lived amongst us.
By Gatu Mbaria