Wangari Maathai was here

‘She only planted trees’: Wangari Maathai talking with President Barack Obama in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2006. Photo: AP

She was not expected to act that way. An African woman is supposed to keep quiet and be deaf and dumb. Speaking out against perceived injustices is not her fort. It is sad that Wangari Maathai, who rejected that stereotype and spent the better part of her life trying to make our planet a better habitat, is no more. The dark-skinned Kenyan professor, who died on Sunday last week at the age of 71, was a true African daughter who channeled her energy towards doing the general good.

Maathai’s milk of human kindness was spread far and wide in the course of promoting her beliefs. This woman, whom some called the Tree Mother of Africa, campaigned for the preservation of the environment for the sustainability of the species. She believed that a healthy environment helped improve lives by providing clean water and firewood for cooking, thereby decreasing conflict. Concerned for the abject condition in which all species live in Africa, she founded the Green Belt Movement, which planted 30 million trees in the hope of improving the chances for peace. This triumph for nature inspired the United Nations to launch a worldwide campaign that resulted in 11 billion trees planted.

Even though the Green Belt Movement started as an environmental sanity group, Maathai expanded it to accommodate issues of peace and democracy. She explained that over time it became clear to her that responsible governance of the environment was not possible without democracy. “Therefore, 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 said.

Was she wasting her time? The biggest destroyers of the human ecology – governments and Big Business – didn’t care. But, still, we as individuals – each one of us – have a role to play in making our habitat safe and long-lasting. If we fold our arms, the dangers posed by the depreciation of the habitat and corruption through our reckless activities would soon catch up with us.

Maathai explains this better in the film, ‘Dirt! The Movie,’ where she narrates the story of a hummingbird carrying one drop of water at a time to fight a forest fire, while animals like the elephant asked why the bird was wasting its energy. “It turns to them and tells them, ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ And that to me is what all of us should do. We should always feel like a hummingbird,” Maathai said. “I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching as the planet goes down the drain. I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can.”

Geir Lundestad, director of the Nobel Institute, which awarded Maathai the peace prize in 2004, said: “Many said, ‘She is just planting trees.’ But that was important, not only from an environmental perspective, to stop the desert from spreading, but also as a way to activate women and fight the Daniel arap Moi regime.” He added, “Wangari Maathai combined the protection of the environment with the struggle for women’s rights and fight for democracy.”

Not surprisingly, for this ‘unAfrican crime’ of a woman confronting those big destroyers, she soon began to pay a price. The then dictatorial President of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi, called her “a mad woman” who was a threat to national security. She was beaten up and vilified, and her husband threw out.

Maathai’s determination of continuing to live her beliefs did not go in vain, though. Her work was recognised by governments, organisations and institutions, as well as individuals, all over the world. She received many accolades and awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first African woman to to do so.

Today, her great legacy is that there is more awareness about the ills of corruption, environmental degradation, the capacity of women to empower themselves without having to wait for droplets from men, and the fact that a focused and committed human spirit can never be defeated by repressive regimes. Today, we cannot say that we were not inspired by Wangari Maathai.
The question, however, is whether we will put this knowledge to use. Should we still continue to behave like those silly animals whose forest has caught fire, their habitat being inexorably consumed by the conflagration? Or should we act like the tiny bird which decided to give its widow’s mite towards containing the catastrophe? Your guess about where I stand is as good as mine, courtesy of the fact that Wangari Maathai was once here on this planet.

Published in BLUEPRINT, on Monday

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