Wangari Maathai ‘achieved more in one short lifetime than most people can even contemplate,’ writes Margaretta wa Gacheru, founding ‘one of the most important environmental movements in the world’ and highlighting ‘the capacity of African rural women to problem-solve for the planet’.
News of Wangari Maathai’s demise on Sunday 25 September spread around the world like wildfire. I read about the Nobel Prize winner’s death online at CNN.com early Monday morning, but it was on all the leading global news sites from Moscow to Muscat to Madrid.
What’s striking is that Dr Maathai is one person who (for better or worse) got heaps of global media coverage in her lifetime, not only at her demise, which is rare. Usually, one has to wait for someone’s obituary to find out all the incredible tidbits about their life. But not Wangari: She was a news maker whose charismatic leadership and controversial stands for noble causes, however popular or unpopular, made her front page news since the 1970s in Kenya and a headliner in international news most often in this new millennium.
This is not to say that Wangari sought the limelight. No! The woman simply sought justice and equity and the ‘best practices’ in all arenas, particularly in government – where she knew, for instance, that women deserved equal treatment to men, and jobless people were just as entitled to jobs as any other human being. Even the Greenbelt Movement grew out of Wangari’s sense of justice and the need to take care of the planet as well as the people who were suffering as a consequence of deforestation, poverty, and poor social policies that neglected the plight of the vast majority of the people.
Wangari’s first commitment was to the Kenyan people, particularly to Kenyan rural women. This I discovered way back in the late 1970s when she was Chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya and head of the Environment Committee which would eventually become the Greenbelt Movement.
At the time of our meeting, Wangari’s commitment to social justice for both the people and the planet was palpable; which is why I came away from that first interview (I was working for Hilary Ng’weno’s Nairobi Times at the time) feeling this was a woman who could not only become the president of Kenya one day.
I felt as if she could become President of Africa; if such a position ever came into being she’d fill the bill perfectly. She had the vision, the conviction, the brilliant ideas and the burning passion to serve as an instrument for the good of her people.
Back then, Wangari made it clear to me that leadership was not a task she took lightly. On the contrary, she had been taught by the nuns early on in her life that the blessings bestowed on her in the form of a good education and opportunities to excel were gifts she had to apply and use to advance the lives of others less fortunate than herself.
Her combination of sincerity, conviction and humility was awesome because at the time, she was already holding positions of authority and power – as head of the Veterinary Anatomy Department at University of Nairobi and as Chair of NCWK (a job that was generating jealousy and envy against Wangari who had already begun moving mountains and making waves).
And yet, what was clear even then was that she had just begun to fulfill her immense leadership capacity. And even now, I content that in spite of her becoming a world-acclaimed environmentalist as well as a grounded social activist and former Kenyan MP, Wangari had barely scratched the surface of all she could have achieved if she hadn’t been blocked so often by lesser beings who were either jealous, envious, intimidated or threatened by her honesty, intelligence and charismatic leadership and authority.
As it was Wangari achieved more in one short lifetime than most people can even contemplate: She founded one of the most important environmental movements in the world, and one that spotlighted the capacity of African rural women to problem-solve for the planet; she ran for Parliament and won (although she was sorely under-utilized by the Kibaki government); and she succeeded in battle against one civilian dictator who attempted to grab public land in the heart of Nairobi for his personal self-aggrandisement.
Her Nobel Prize in 2004 was for her successfully showing the world the clear-cut connection between resource depletion (and extraction), poverty and war. She was honored for identifying how protecting the earth’s natural resources is an important peace-making strategy
My one disappointment with Wangari is that in 1992 when the National Commission on the Status of Women called on her to run for the presidency, she declined. She noted that since she was from the same constituency as Mwai Kibaki, she didn’t want to split the vote.
But what if she had run? What if she had won? I’m convinced she could have, and then where would we be today?
We can say there is no point speculating on ‘what could have been’, but we can know and trust that Wangari’s spirit still reigns in our hearts and that her spirit is still with us.
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