Greening is Maathai’s memorial

2011-10-01 13:53

Kenyans reacted with shock and disbelief to the news this week of the death of Nobel laureate Professor Wangari Maathai.

As the loss of the country’s globally feted environmentalist sank in Kenyans in the streets of Nairobi recounted the remarkable things for which the first African woman Nobel laureate would be remembered.

Former political prisoner Koigi Wamwere said: “I will forever remember the day she led mothers of political prisoners to strip in protest to Moi/Kanu oppression and dictatorship in 1991, giving the plight of political prisoners international attention, which led to our release.”

The media and the Kenyan public know that Maathai was a woman of many firsts: her first act of unparalleled courage was her single-handed opposition to plans by the Moi and Kanu party to put a 60-storey concrete monster at Uhuru Park, Nairobi’s equivalent of Hyde Park in London, in 1989.

Maathai, then a well-known environmental activist, organised a spirited campaign against the desecration of the park, causing the lead financier of the project, media tycoon Robert Maxwell, to back down.

Her second great victory was in 1998, when she stopped the real estate grab by cronies of the Moi regime at Karura forest, located 17km from the Nairobi city centre.

Though she was attacked and bloodied by hired goons when she led the protest, the forest is now considered the lungs of Nairobi.

Maathai will be given a state burial. She gave in to ovarian cancer at 71, just seven years after she was crowned a Nobel Peace prizewinner and six years after writing her autobiography, Unbowed.

Human rights activist Muga Gathendu said: “Many local politicians disliked her in life as they knew she stood for public good. Some of them are crying more than the bereaved now that they realise in death she poses no threat to their selfish interests.”

Born in 1940, Maathai grew up in central Kenya, attending local schools and then the University of Mt Scholastica in the US in 1960, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences.

She obtained her masters degree from the University of Pittsburgh and furthered her studies in Germany. She returned to Kenya in 1966 as an assistant lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

She became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate in 1971 but quit teaching two years after founding the Greenbelt Movement, an organisation that has planted more than 40 million trees across Kenya in a bid to reforest the country’s fast-dwindling tree cover.

And she established the Wangari Maathai Institute of Peace and Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi as her latest project five years ago.

Her decision to vie for the presidency in 1997 and to join parliamentary politics in 2002 are judged as her only missteps for she never went far, only rising to become an assistant minister for environment.

“At least she left each one of us a gift,” remarked John Gatitu, a dairy farmer in central Kenya.

“She taught us the importance of trees. I will plant one in her honour.”

» Waruru is a Nairobi-based journalist 

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