Professor Maathai was a celebrated environmentalist, but what was equally remarkable about her was ‘her open defiance of outdated, male chauvinistic, neo-colonial and repressive attitudes and traditions’ that hindered not just women, but Kenya as a whole, writes Rasna Warah.
‘Too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control.’ This is how Mwangi Mathai described his headstrong wife Wangari when he sought to divorce her in 1979. Thankfully, these were just the qualities that led this feisty and courageous woman to make a name for herself in the global environmental movement.
In subsequent years, and particularly during former President Daniel arap Moi’s authoritarian rule, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, activist and environmentalist would be called many other things. In the early 1990s, when she led a protest against the construction of a 60-storey building in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park (that was intended as the headquarters of the Kenya African National Union party), Moi’s cronies dismissed her as a ‘crazy woman’. In reference to Maathai, Moi even publicly stated that those opposed to the construction of the building – that threatened to take up a large chunk of Nairobi’s largest public park – had ‘insects in their heads‘. The misogynistic and myopic parliament of the time described members of Maathai’s Greenbelt Movement, which sought to secure the park as a green area, as ‘a bunch of divorcees’.
But Maathai was unmoved and unbowed. On 28 February 1992, Maathai and others took part in a hunger strike at the very location set aside for the building, which she baptised as Freedom Corner. Four days later, police descended on her and other protesters, knocking her unconscious. Public outcry and international criticism finally forced Moi and the KANU government to accept her demand.
The battle for Uhuru Park was not a small or insignificant feat. In the global and national consciousness, environmental issues finally became recognised as political issues that demanded a political response. Maathai managed to convince the world that bad politics has severe consequences for the environment and for the prospect of peace and security.
Maathai’s tenacious environmental preservation efforts in Uhuru Park and other green spaces in the city, including Karura Forest, earned her accolades abroad, which culminated in a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Maathai became the first African woman to win the Prize. But it was hardly the first time that this Kenyan woman had broken a ceiling. In 1971, she became the first East African woman to earn a doctorate. She was also among the first batch of Kenyan students chosen to study in the United States as part of the famous ‘Kennedy airlift’ in the 1960s.
But what made her stand out from the rest was her open defiance of outdated, male chauvinistic, neo-colonial and repressive attitudes and traditions that hindered not just the progress of women, but of Kenyan society as a whole. As a young woman, she dropped her Christian name Mary Josephine, preferring to be known by her birth name Wangari Muta. Later, in defiance of her ex-husband’s insistence that that she drop his surname, she added an extra ’a’ to it.
Unfortunately, for all her efforts, Wangari Maathai remained a prophetess and heroine who was better recognised abroad than at home. Derided and scorned by the Moi government and grudgingly tolerated by Mwai Kibaki’s administration, Maathai was a general in an army that was unconscious of its own might. When she won the Tetu parliamentary seat in 2002, she was appointed Assistant Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, a post that did not have sufficient clout to be effective. Even when she won the Nobel Prize, the government failed to honour her in any way.
But for ordinary Kenyans – particularly those families, lovers, weary factory workers, hawkers and lonely souls who escape to the beauty and tranquillity of Uhuru Park on weekends – she will always remain an icon who cannot easily be replaced.
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