The Tree Mother of Africa has fallen

2011-10-01 14:02

World-renowned Kenyan activist demonstrated the link between conflict and the environment

“A great tree has fallen.” This expression we use when a great person dies has an even deeper significance when we talk of the death of Professor Wangari Maathai, whose work inspired the planting of millions of trees not only in her native Kenya but throughout Africa.

If trees could choose a patron saint then surely it would be Maathai.

Indeed, she was widely known as the Tree Mother of Africa.

The Green Belt Movement she founded in the 1970s inspired the United Nations Environmental Programme to launch a worldwide billion-tree campaign in 2006.

The persecution she and her fellow Green Belt activists endured at the hands of the Daniel arap Moi regime demonstrated the relationship between protecting the environment, poverty and political corruption.

One of their major achievements was to force the ruling party to abandon its plans to build a six-storey party headquarters in Kenya’s famous Uhuru Park.

In her own words: “The tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilised to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement.”

Maathai’s groundbreaking environmental activism thrust her into global prominence when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

From 1983 onward she ­received more than 15 honorary doctorates and other awards and accolades from Kenya to the US, the Netherlands, Sweden, Scotland, France, Japan, India and South Africa, which gave her the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 2007.

I will be forever grateful that I had the privilege of meeting Maathai when she came to South Africa to deliver the Third Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in 2005.

I was struck by the smile that lit up a smooth-skinned face that belied her years, her gracious and serene presence and her humility.

Her lecture was a tour de force. She spoke passionately not only about her concern for the environment but also concern for the youth and their education, the link between conflict and environment, and the threat of HIV-Aids and the need for governments to be accountable.

She received a standing ovation and earned praise from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bill Clinton. Maathai inspired one to feel that one could achieve anything.

She fearlessly tackled the greatest challenges of our time. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon rightly said she was “a pioneer in articulating the links between human rights, poverty, environmental protection and security”.

The special site for tributes set up by the Green Belt Movement ( features messages from the Dalai Lama, Prince Charles, Ban Ki-moon and his predecessor Kofi Annan, her fellow Nobel laureates, including Tutu, Rigoberta Menchu and Shireen Ebadi, heads of state including the presidents of the US, Kenya and Tanzania, heads of environmental organisations, environmental and feminist activists, and ordinary citizens.

The tributes from world leaders and prominent global citizens are testimony to the stature of this great daughter of Nyeri. Those that have the most resonance for me are those of African feminists, academics and activists.

 They have comforted and inspired me to marvel anew at this extraordinary life.

Prof Thandika Mkandawire, a veteran African scholar and former general secretary of the Council for Economic Research and Development in Africa (Codesria), recalls how Maathai arrived in Kampala a day after a Codesria symposium on academic freedom: “When I made the obvious point that she was too late for the symposium, she replied, with that great smile that was her trademark: ‘I know, but I made it’,” recalls Mkandawire.

“The Kenyan government of the time had denied Kenyan academics the permission to travel by airplane to what must have been perceived as a subversive conference. So Wangari travelled on land. There was no way they could stop her.”

Malawian academic Louis Nthenda recalls when she was invited to Japan to give talks on the environmental movement and what ordinary people could do. “She was an instant hit,” writes Nthenda.

“During her visit one of the Japanese words she picked up was ‘mottainai’ – a single word loosely translated as ‘what a waste’. She suggested that the Japanese were traditionally a frugal people and seemed satisfied with a ‘small is beautiful’ style of life and they should reflect on ‘mottainai’, which reflected a deeper meaning in their traditional culture.

 “This touched her audiences and after she left people said: ‘It took a foreigner to tell us something really good about ourselves.’

Mottainai societies started springing up everywhere to enforce the three Rs : Reuse, Return, Recyle. “Mottainai became the officially adopted slogan by both government and NGOs for the recycling movement in Japan and is ever associated with Maathai.

 Mottainai posters in public places carrying pictures of Maathai spread her message.

“Wangari is not dead. She lives on in towns and villages in Japan. In 2009 the emperor of Japan honoured her with The Order of the Rising Sun for taking mottainai to the world.”

 Ethiopian academic Zenebeworke Tadesse met Maathai at the Rio International Conference on the Environment in 1992.

 “The day she was scheduled to give a keynote address the Kenyan delegation decided to make public the sordid (and of course one-sided) details of her divorce in Kenyan courts, with the clear intention to deter her from or at least taint her much-anticipated address.

“Their intentions backfired . . . their slander garnered her much solidarity from most participants in Rio,” writes Tadesse.Maathai was most certainly fearless and inspiring.

What is crucial to remember is that she was fearless and defiant at a time when most critical voices in Africa were engulfed in a debilitating silence resulting from self-censorship or had opted to leave our countries or the continent.

 Her persistent defiance of one of the most brutal regimes at that time came at a high cost to her wellbeing but she did not waver. She articulated and struggled for accountability long before it was a safe buzzword.

Kenyan lecturer Muthoni Kimani writes: “Prof Wangari Maathai lives on in all of us who will continue to champion her work. Women experience environmental degradation at a more personal level as they birth the world. If the environment is degraded, her children are the first to be infected and affected.

“Let all the women of the land plant a tree, reject genetically modified and chemical farming in favour of organic, authentic farming that Wangari championed. Let all the women of the land stand firm as a tree, resolutely rejecting degradation of the feminine principle.”

Gabeba Baderoon, writer, poet and activist of the Gender Justice and Climate Change Group, has revealed that environmental activists and feminist groups in Africa are inviting people all over the world to plant trees in memory of Maathai.

“There can be no better tribute to her work,” writes Baderoon The response of Nigerian feminist activist and academic Amina Mama is the most appropriate way to end this reflection on Maathai’s life: “May a thousand more freedom fighters also bloom and honour the legacy of our sister, now one of our ancestors.

 Wangari we will miss you, your militance, your protests and your smile.“Kenyan sisters, we join you in sadness at this great loss.? May her legacy lead us to a greener and more feminist world.”

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