Editors Note: Kenyan Environmentalist Wagari Maathai, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, died Sept. 26.
By John Mbaria
Special to InvestigateWest
I personally knew Professor Wagari Maathai, long before the world had fully acknowledged her struggles.
I was in university when she took on the Kanu Government for attempting to put up a 60-storey private building in Uhuru Park, the biggest public park. And even though matters environment had not engulfed my inner man, I was fascinated that an ‘ordinary soul’ had dared to go against the wishes of baba na mama (euphemism for the then mighty Kanu Party). Few of us at the University of Nairobi were dedicated to any cause. Although we would find immense excitement as we ganged up to stage riots over issues we thought were important, hardly did environmental issues in general or Wangari Maathai’s causes in particular, feature in our struggles.
Our lives’ journeys were to come to a confluence when I became an environmental reporter with The EastAfrican and later a columnist with Daily Nation. This wasin the early 2000s. Around the time, the regime of the former President Daniel Moi had stubbornly refused to see the sense in sparing the last of the country’s ecosystems. At the time, the ruling party’s intransigence had become legendary. And to crown its folly, the regime came up with one devious anti-environment scheme after another. If it was not the decimation of Karura forest, it was Ngong Forest, if not Ngong, it was Mount Kenya forests, Marmanet, Sirimoni, Kaptagat, Maasai Mau and so on ad nauseum.
And having long championed the ‘rights’ of trees through her GreenBelt Movement, Wangari Maathai’s work was cut out for her. And she proved beyond any doubt that she was made of stuff that hardly made lesser mortals. As she crossed rivers, valley and Moi-Kanu’s no-go-zones, she gave us scribes and ‘armchair’ environmentalists a chance to cut our teeth. We needed no motivation to make her life and struggles the focus of our pens. And we outdid ourselves to coin words and phrases to describe her daring moves and pronouncements.
Maathai had also taken note and was willing to interact more closely with ‘pen soldiers.’ She would occasionally invite us herself or would cause us to be invited to cover her activities. But we needed no invitation particularly when the Kanu regime decided to use the country’s forest estate as political capital. For example, in one mad move announced in the Kenya Gazette Supplement of February 16, 2001, the regime slashed off a whooping 167,000 acres from the country’s forests lands. And for months to come, the story occupied prime time news on radio and TV and acres of space in print media.
In December 2002, the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) party floored the unpopular Kanu. By this time, Wangari had not only cut a niche for herself, but had long become a household name. And the people of Tetu Constituency in Central Kenya recognized and rewarded her struggles when they elected her to represent them in the National Assembly. The NARC gave her the Assistant Environment Minister portfolio which sort of ‘silenced’ her as she now found herself in the unfamiliar world of voicing the official line as was required of her through ‘collective responsibility.’
While working as an assistant minister, I was to accompany her in 2005 when she headed a delegation to South Africa on a fact-finding mission about titanium-mining in the country's Richards Bay area. The tour was meant to be an ‘eye opener’ for a government that had failed to resolve the nagging issues surrounding a titanium mining project proposed by Tiomin Resources Inc, a Canadian company, at Kwale area in Kenya’s Coast. For long years, Tiomin had been unsuccessful in getting local people in Kwale to accept to give up their land so that it could commence its mining project. By sponsoring the tour, the Kenya government was determined to resolve the impasse once and for all. But as we toured Richards Bay, it dawned on me that removing Prof Maathai from the world of activism had not blunted her resolve for matters environment and for fighting for social justice. Maathai awed me particularly because she kept making comments and asking questions that made the other Kenyan dignitaries uneasy. Her sentiments spoke to my own journalistic concerns over the titanium mining saga.
I also realized that though she could have been many things to many people, she was a stickler for detail. While other dignitaries dozed off after been significantly indulged by our hosts, Prof Maathai kept them (our hosts) on toes as she asked one question after another. She was particularly keen to know what it would take for local people and the country to realize the full value of the titanium ores. And upon learning that it was possible for Kenya to ask the Canadian company to add value to the ore locally, she was heard, on a number of occasions, to voice the opinion that Kenya should not end up selling the ores for a song.
But her main concern then -as she often told other members of the delegation- was whether Tiomin, would end up restoring as much of the original environment as possible once it had exhausted the mineral deposits – after 14 years. She kept saying that it would be unforgivable were Tiomin to leave behind gaping craters in the once pristine, undisturbed Kwale environment.
Our tour lasted a week.
But all of Prof Maathai’s concerns and effort appeared to come to nothing. After the tour, the delegation was supposed to compile and present its findings to the government so that they could form the basis for a decision on whether to license the Canadian company or not. The findings were also to be discussed before a national consultative forum. But this was not to be. Just days after our trip, the government announced – to the chagrin of many an activist – that it had issued Tiomin with a mining permit. Curiously, the announcement came the same day a national forum had been organized to discuss the delegation's findings. Everybody was taken aback, with most questioning the logic behind sending such a high-powered delegation to South Africa in the first place.
I was to later to publish an exclusive report that revealed the behind-the-scenes maneuverings that culminated in the Canadian company getting the permit. Upon reading the story, key figures in the then relatively new government were unhappy and pointed fingers at Prof Maathai. They accused her of leaking the contents of a confidential letter written by a top government official to me. This is the letter that awarded Tiomin the permit. Later, there was a falling out between Maathai and her boss, the late Dr Newton Kulundu, over the matter. For some reasons unknown to Kenyans, Prof Maathai later kept an unusually low profile that she apparently maintained as an assistant minister and a Member of Parliament for Tetu.
Activism, not mainstream politics, many believe, was more of Prof Maathai's cup of tea. And she seemed to concur. For instance, at one time, she was publicly attacked by fellow parliamentarians and even by her constituents for voicing her opposition to cultivation of Kenya’s forests through the shamba system. Also called ‘resident cultivation’ this is a forest management system that had allowed local people to live and cultivate food crops in Kenya’s forests under the belief that they would also take care of trees. The system was put in place by the British colonial authorities in the early 1900s but had been grossly abused particularly since late 1970s. With this in mind, Prof Maathai had vehemently opposed its return, a move that did not endear her to a lot of big and ‘small’ shots in Kenya. She was to express her frustration that national leaders and the general public could not appreciate the danger the country faced once the remaining pockets of forests were completely depleted.
Her frustration with this seemingly narrow space-time perspective – this failure to comprehend that human survival and ecosystems in Kenya were intricately related – was evident when she once offered to give up her parliamentary seat rather than watch the continuation of government-led destruction of forests.
Prof Maathai never shied from controversy. She never shirked fight in the cause of the voiceless trees and on behalf of the life-nurturing environment. She was, as Shakespeare wrote, made of "sterner stuff." She had demonstrated this long before matters environmental became the in-thing. When everyone else cowered before the wrath of an all-powerful President Moi, the professor of veterinary medicine stood her ground to challenge the government's move to convert Central Park, the historic park in Nairobi, into a 60-storey office and commercial complex. This was in 1989 and because of her campaign, many leading political figures, including Moi himself, openly ridiculed her, with some parliamentarians going to the extent of threatening to mutilate her genitalia.
But true to her fighting spirit, she emerged the victor, but not before she had made the fight for the park an international one by asking governments whose nationals wanted to fund the project the question: "why would you want to destroy a small park in Nairobi?"
The Karura Forest in Nairobi was another arena where Prof Maathai clashed with a group of powerful government functionaries who had by then attained the infamous tag of "hackers" of Kenya's destiny. They had allocated a substantial sections of the over 1,000-acre forest to their cronies and friends through a host of what later emerged to be dubious companies. Prof Maathai and fellow activists won the fight in the face of grave danger to their lives. To silence her, the police beat and pulled her hair off, causing her tremendous agony.
Her high-profile environmental battles aside, few realise how much she had influenced pro-environment activities particularly among millions of people hurdled in Kenya's rural areas. For instance, in a number of Meru districts In Eastern Kenya, residents attribute a unique banana-planting technique to her Green Belt Movement. Secondly, in most trading centres of Nyandarua district of Central kenya, GreenBelt Movement’s colours and posters implored residents to plant trees and protect their environment.
Indeed, it was her work with poor rural women that the Nobel Committee, cited in late 2004 when it awarded her the famous peace prize. The Committee had said, "for nearly 30 years, she (Prof Maathai) has mobilized poor women to plant 30 million trees."
I was to interact more closely again when she invited me to join her Nobel Peace Secretariat hosted at a famous Nairobi Hotel. Our boss was the seasoned journalist, Salim Lone, who coached her on how to handle local and international media. My work then was to prepare briefs and talking points for her particularly on the connection between peace and environment. It was then that the concept of Peace Trees, that had been championed for ten years by her district mate, the late Kariuki Thuku together with Sultan Somjee of AFRIPAD, was introduced to the Professor who readily accepted it and started championing it to hordes of dignitaries who visited her. In essence, the concept promoted the rich peace-making traditions among African societies who had continued to use special trees to create and preserve peace both in the pre-colonial and post-colonial periods. Somjeee and AFRIPAD had researched on how pastoralist groups inhabiting Kenya’s drylands employed the concept for about 10 years. Prof Maathai would readily narrate the concept and was proud to demonstrate how it worked as she gave envoys and other dignitaries peace trees to take back to their home countries.
Later, as I covered the Global Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland in 2008, I was to realize the truth behind the Biblical saying that a ‘prophet is not recognized in their home town.’ Crowds of reporters, representatives of governments as well as people in the NGO world would line up to beg for autographs and photo opportunities with Maathai. I also learned that she had ben appointed to the high-profile position of the Good Will Ambassador for the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem. For some reason, the West so valued her role that at some point, the British government devoted as much as £50 million (Ksh7.9 billion) for the Congo Project in 2007.
But back home, the good professor had become a ‘commoner’ with some Members of Parliament deriding her variously for going against the grain as far as national issues were concerned. But as Mahatma Ghandi once said, they could have fought her, but they could not ignore her.
May her restless spirit find the rest she lacked as she lived amongst us.
Contact John Mbaria at firstname.lastname@example.org