The Beautiful Ones are Born before Their Time: A Tribute to Wangari Maathai

By  Tee Ngugi  (email the author)They cremated Wangari Maathai’s body on Saturday in Nairobi and interred her ashes at a research institute named after her.
 And with that final act, just as with other acts in her lifetime, she demonstrated that she was a woman born ahead of her time.

In life, she challenged patriarchy, dictatorship and tribalism when it was not only customary to accept their miniature visions of ourselves and our society, but also when it was life threatening to do so.

Nothing could have been easier than for Wangari to choose the uncomplicated life and concentrate on her primary professional interest, pretending – like most of us did – that our vocation existed in splendid isolation from other spheres of life.

So doctors would treat wounds inflicted by police torture without asking a question; NGOs ran projects in slums and impoverished rural areas and ignored the political causes of poverty; counsellors treated women abuse victims pretending not see that the underlying cause of abuse was a patriarchy sanctified by culture; economists peddled esoteric arguments , refusing to factor governance in their analysis of underdevelopment; legal scholars spoke of the rule of law in abstraction, blind to the daily practical violations of the concept; and political science lecturers miraculously taught their discipline without reference to the political decay around them.

But Wangari Maathai refused to not see the intersecting relationships among conservation, democracy and human rights, patriarchy and tribalism. She saw that conservation was contrary to the interests of a kleptocracy. She saw that patriarchy was an injustice rooted in culture and protected by a male dominated polity.

She realised that tribal identity was manipulated by the political class for its own political and class interests which were accumulation of power and wealth. She was convinced that democracy and human rights would allow people to realise their full potential, thereby expanding the meaning of their vocations.

Her battles and triumphs are captured in iconic imagery and narratives that postmark our progress as individuals and as a nation.

There is an image of Wangari – waving and beaming her high voltage smile – being led to court to answer charges of contempt of court after she criticised the judge who presided over her divorce case.

The image is a symbol of Kenyan women’s struggle against patriarchy. For Wangari, patriarchy – whose elemental purpose is to confine the woman to the kitchen and bedroom – presented a vexing challenge.

In her book, Unbowed, she remembers the pain of one day coming home to find her husband gone. One can infer that, in her view, marriage was not meant to limit her potential, to subject her to an inferior status and treat her– as Micere Mugo writes in a paper on culture – “as subservient minors, relegated to the periphery of historical actions”.

It was a place to find sustenance and inspiration after the punishing rigours of- to borrow another phrase from Micere – ‘exploding the silence’ imposed on women by the nexus of patriarchy and dictatorship.

Her divorcee status would be used as a term of abuse, and she was depicted, like other divorced or unmarried women fighting patriarchy and dictatorship were, as wild and dangerous, lacking in moral character. It is a familiar characterisation that speaks volumes of the parochial and irrational vision of patriarchy.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that women who have changed and continue to change our views about the possibilities of life and society have had to break out of patriarchal – as opposed to equal, mutually inspirational – partnerships.

There is another image of Wangari confronting guards armed with bows and arrows and other crude weapons at Karura Forest.

It reminds us of her struggle, and ours, against a regime so arrogant and heartless that school fields, road reserves, hospital land and public spaces were fair game for appropriation for private benefit.

This struggle is epitomised by the epic battle for Uhuru Park, where the regime had resolved to build a concrete testament to its own avariciousness.

Then there are pictures of her being beaten unconscious at Uhuru Park, and in hospital, for choosing to demand democracy and the release of political prisoners.

By then, the regime had realised its Orwellian ambitions, and its menace was present in every sphere of our lives, dictating how we should dress (remember the man forced to shave at a public gathering), how to spend our money (the forced Harambee contributions), how to elect our MPs (queue voting), what to read, write, speak or news to listen to.

Like George Orwell’s Big Brother, the regime demanded conformity of thought. If propaganda, in the manner of an ex-Kanu functionary’s eloquent sycophancy ( behold the Prince of Peace; a Daniel has come to judgement ), failed to bring about conformity, the regime had recourse to an array of ‘legal’ and extralegal methods, whose brutality is gruesomely represented by the purpose-built Nyayo House torture chambers.

Wangari and those who shared her democratic ideas would gradually open up – step by painful step – the democratic space, a process that culminated in the coming to power of the NARC government in 2003.

But the new regime was a mix of Kanu types and elements of the pro-democracy movement, the latter who, after tasting power, began to act in Kanuesque ways, recalling another of George Orwell’s satire of revolutionary change.

In the allegorical novel, Animal Farm, the animals look through the window at Napolean entertaining humans and notice that they could no longer tell the difference between the faces of the pigs and their human guests.

So Wangari became once again a threat to the cynicism, larceny and power machinations of the new regime.

Of course the new power elites refrained from the barbaric tactics Kanu used to try and silence her; their method was to ignore her, and to exclude her – using tribal arguments – from the political debate. But the world refused to follow the lead of the new elites. In 2004, another image would be beamed across the world – Wangari receiving the Nobel Peace prize, a fitting recognition of her life’s struggles to bring positive change to Kenya and the world. The picture is of Wangari at the award ceremony in Stockholm.

She stands in an orange African dress with a matching headscarf, beaming that smile with which she brightened up rooms and lives.

Since her death, many have written and spoken about her academic, professional and political achievements, and this is all as it should be.

Yet we must not forget that another of her accomplishments was her challenge to us to take personal responsibility for changing our society. When other academicians were eager to put the blame for the state of our society on colonialism and foreigners, Wangari insisted that we own up to our mistakes and take personal and collective responsibility.

When some complained that foreigners were infringing on our sovereignty, she challenged us individually and collectively to act in ways worthy of that sovereignty.

She taught us to take personal responsibility for our environment, for the cleanliness and orderliness of our cities and towns, for fighting social ills. She challenged us first individually and then collectively to be like the hummingbird – to do the best we can. In a very real sense, therefore, The Green Belt movement was also a paradigm for personal renewal.

File | NATION Nobel Peace Prize winner and world renowned environmentalist Wangari Maathai died of ovarian cancer at The Nairobi Hospital on Sunday night.

File | NATION Nobel Peace Prize winner and world renowned environmentalist Wangari Maathai died of ovarian cancer at The Nairobi Hospital on Sunday night.

ay, October 11  2011 at  13:15

In one of her last interviews, Wangari laments that she should have spent more time with her children and less time building her career. But it seems to me she was not building a career; she was quite simply living an honest life, and not the lie most us live of keeping quiet in the face of an injustice, of looking the other way when we see bribery, of saying ‘this is our culture’ even if we know that what it sanctions is wrong. And this – living the truth – is an enduring lesson she has left for her children and for us.

It would not be presumptuous for me to say that they and we would not have wanted it any other way.

October, says the Colonel in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, No One Talks to the Colonel, is a difficult month to get through.

The Colonel had woken up to find the rainy and wintry month in capricious wait in his yard and on his veranda.

But for me, the sinister month must be September when Wangari Maathai died.

Yet when I heard the news of her death, the September morning was beautiful and peaceful.

I was visiting a writer friend in the tea growing area of Limuru. I have some bad news, he said. He had returned from a nearby shop.

I thought he was going to tell me about the latest large scale deaths resulting from official incompetence or the latest tribal configuration in the political jockeying ahead of the elections next year or the latest insults so-called presidential candidates have hurled at one another.

Wangari Maathai is dead, he said.

There was the initial shock followed by disbelief.

I went outside and looked at the gentle slopes and rises of the tea plantations. From a distance, the plantations gave the illusion of an endless manicured green lawn – beautiful and peaceful in the early morning sun.

It occurred to me that Wangari saw the world in green and in the colour of peace – a peace with justice.

She pushed us to imagine and strive for just such a world.

And as I thought this, I felt a strange mix of grief and hope.


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