The East African (Nairobi)

Kenya: Wangari Maathai - End of an Era

Prof Wangari Muta Maathai - Africa's first black woman Nobel laureate and among the world's foremost environmental conservationist - who was cremated on Saturday October 8, left behind a powerful legacy.

The evening news of the death of Prof Maathai a fortnight ago was a shocker, especially because her illness was unknown to the general public, just like the announcement that she chose cremation over being buried in a wooden coffin.

"Prof Maathai's departure is untimely and a 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," reads a statement from the Green Belt Movement, announcing her death.

A politician, a professor of veterinary medicine and a conservationist, all rolled into one, Prof Maathai is best known for founding the grassroots based Green Belt Movement that empowers ordinary Kenyans to conserve the environment as a way of political and cultural emancipation.

Her ingenious illustration of the interconnections between culture, politics, economics and the environment marked a breakthrough in conservation activism, winning her several accolades.

In her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, Maathai moved thousands to tears as she pointed out the destruction that humanity had visited on Mother Earth warning that we were doomed to extinction unless this was reversed.

The disappearance of the village well, in Tetu District of Kenya where she was born, painted the picture of destruction perfectly.

In her childhood, she recalled with 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 blamed human activities around the well for its disappearance, and explained how that had disrupted her people's way of life.As a Nobel Laureate, Prof Maathai continued her passionate conservation crusades, especially in the context of global warming and reforestation.

usy diary

After 2008, when she dropped out of Kenya's parliamentary politics after losing her seat after only one term, the 71-year-old professor went global. With the number of international assignments she was handling, Maathai was hardly in Kenya.

One day she was attending to the 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 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," she said. Challenging others to improve the environment is what guided her struggle.

In her view, Kenya's environmental degradation started with the cultural degradation occasioned by displacement that was promoted through colonisation. When the colonial settlers robbed communities of their land they also stripped them of a way of life that had promoted environmental conservation.

Introduction of new species of flora and fauna, most of which were not supportive of the ecosystem, plus exploitation of natural resources, worsened the situation.

Further, post-Independence regimes carried on the destruction, with government-sanctioned deforestation for farming and other commercial activities.

This degraded the ecosystems further, paving the way for the serious environmental degradation that faces us today.

Early days

To address environmental degradation, Prof Maathai started the Green Belt Movement in 1977. This was a self-propelling grassroots movement that put its membership on a collision course with then president Daniel arap Moi.

When she worked with women under the National Council of Women of Kenya as its chairperson between 1981 and 1987, the idea of involving grassroots women in conservation become even more entrenched.

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 20-30 million trees on their farms and in school and church compounds

Realising how connected conservation was to politics, the women went ahead to confront political issues of discrimination, corruption and resource grabbing by those close to power.

In 1988, a group of women, led by Prof Wangari, stopped the construction of a skyscraper in Nairobi's Uhuru Park, after applying sustained pressure.

Later, the Green Belt Movement was instrumental in the push for the release of political prisoners, considered as the tipping point in Kenya's politics that eventually delivered multipartyism and a new Constitution years later.

Between 2002 and 2008, Prof Maathai was an assistant minister in President Mwai Kibaki's government, but remained focused on her work and did not hesitate to criticise the government, as much as she was also the voice of reason.

The story of her 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 Belt Movement and how it can work elsewhere, as Kinyanjui Kombani's Mother of Trees.

Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, an award winning documentary by Lisa Merton and Alan Dater, captures Prof Maathai's world, explaining the conservationist's convictions in a deep, engaging way.

Wangari Maatha's was an inspirational life well lived.

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