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Goodnite Wangari Maathai


A tribute to a deceased Nobel Laureate

In January 2008, Vanguard published my review article on the late Wangari Maathai’s “Unbowed: A memoir”. I am reproducing it below as a tribute to the late Nobel Peace Laureate.

The last time I met her was in 2010 in one of the lounges at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos as we awaited a Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi. I reminded her of my contention in the review article that she made more significant contributions as Africa’s pre-eminent environmental protection activist and public intellectual than she made during her stint as an Assistant Minister during President Kibaki’s first term in the early 2000s.

It is a very pleasing coincidence that within a month of her passing, two other African women followed her footsteps by being among the three joint-winners of the Nobel Peace Prize 2011, an award Maathai had won in 2004. The two African women are President Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, the first democratically elected female African head of state, and her compatriot, 39-year old Mrs. Leymah Gbowee.

Late Wangari Maathai

Sirleaf-Johnson is recognised as a reformer and peacemaker after Liberia’s civil war while Gbowee is honoured as a peace activist and for mobilising female opposition to Liberia’s civil war, and encouraging women to participate in the political process. So, Maathai, even as she passed on, figuratively ensured that the glory she was the first to bring to Africa lives on. What a fitting ending for a great life. Adieu, Maathai.

An African Amazon – Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai

Two years after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Maathai’s “Unbowed: A memoir” was published in 2006. The book is reviewed in this note to draw readers’ attention to a Kenyan story, nay an African story that has lessons for all Africans, especially all those activists (female and male) who, sometimes, wonder whether they are hammering in vain on the doors of power in their different countries.

About one-third of “Unbowed” is devoted to Maathai’s early life and school years in rural Kenya, ending with an account of her university education in the US that she, like many others from Africa and elsewhere, fondly refer to as their “American Dream”. After six years in the US, she returned to independent Kenya in 1966 with a bachelor of science degree and a master’s degree in biological sciences.

She dutifully joined the staff of the University of Nairobi and aspired to an academic career. Within a few years, she got married and obtained her doctoral degree – the first female Ph.D holder in East and Central Africa. Then, her refusal to countenance gender discrimination in academia brought her promising career as a university teacher to an abrupt end.

Thereafter, events moved quickly (including divorce) to make her turn to three activities that have defined her and dominated her life ever since: defense of women’s rights, environmental protection and politics.

Maathai’s activism in these three areas was concurrent, with the environmental front as the most prominent because the Green Belt Movement she established in 1977 attracted regional and international attention for the results it achieved in tree-planting and the protection of Kenya’s parks and forests. It is estimated that Green Belt Movement planted about thirty million trees across Kenya. A fascinating dimension to her work, as an environmentalist, was the mobilization of rural women for tree-planting in their different villages, supported with small pecuniary rewards that enhanced their quality of life.

Not surprisingly, her fierce struggles for environmental protection resulted in her many battles with the repressive government of President Moi from the 1970s through the 1980s to the 1990s, and continuing right up to the immediate months preceding the 2002 elections that ended Moi’s dictatorial rule. She was put under house arrest on several occasions; spent many spells in “dirty, cramped police cells”; and spent a few days inside a Nairobi prison.

Tellingly, she asserts in the book that while the police succeeded in humiliating her time and again, they never succeeded in intimidating her – a testimony to her commitment, courage, determination and strength of character.

In her early years as an environmentalist and a champion of women’s rights, her foray into opposition politics was low-key. Thus, besides participation in opposition meetings and rallies, her only notable involvement in political praxis was her unsuccessful bid to contest a parliamentary by-election in the early 1980s.

However, by the 1990s, her three arenas became inseparable, partly because the repressive Moi government treated all challenges to its authority in the same inhumane manner and partly because activists of all colours became allies in their struggles against the government. A strong evidence of her rising profile outside Kenya was her emergence in 1998 as the co-chair of the Jubilee 2000 Africa campaign.

By the turn of the century, Maathai had become a leading African and international leader in the environmental community and several awards had been bestowed on her and her Green Belt Movement for the successes she had recorded in championing environmental protection in Kenya. In 2001/2002, she joined the ranks of the opposition coalition against President Moi and in December 2002, she became a member of parliament (MP) in the elections that brought President Kibaki to power. In early 2003, she was appointed an Assistant (Deputy) Minister in the Ministry of Environment.

A few more accolades came her way, including an honorary degree in humane letters from Yale University, USA in 2004. Before the year ended, she was announced winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, human rights, and peace.” As recounted in the book, the news of the award hit her “like a thunderbolt’ and left her “speechless”.

It is worth mentioning that the University of Nairobi where her academic career had been prematurely terminated in the 1970s awarded her an honorary degree shortly after she became a Nobel Laureate – a case of a prophet being honoured on her home turf only after she had garnered many prestigious international prizes.

Maathai’s experience inside government

The following two observations in the book shed some light on Maathai’s experience inside government between January 2003 and December 2007: “I do feel that it is better to try to bring about some change from inside than hammer in vain on the doors from the outside.” “Democracy does not solve problems. It does not automatically combat poverty or stop deforestation. However, without it, the ability for people to solve problems or become less poor or respect their environment is, I believe, impossible.” She confirmed these observations during a television interview in Nairobi in November 2007 when she was asked to assess the extent to which she had been able to make a difference during her four-year stint as a minister.

After admitting that she had only managed to achieve small improvements in legislations sponsored by her own ministry on issues related to environmental protection, she insisted that being inside government to ensure some small gains was better than shouting for radical change from outside. I was struck by the consistency of her response with what she had written in her book.

I would conjecture that while some activists would agree with her viewpoint, some others would disagree. Based on the details of her struggles and her achievements on the ground that are recorded in her book, and to which I was an eyewitness for close to two years (1998-2000), I find her verdict about hammering “in vain on the doors from the outside” during those years rather harsh. Indeed, I would assert that she has underestimated what she achieved from the outside for environmental protection and women’s rights. In contrast, I concur with her viewpoint on what democracy can and cannot do.

Postscript: The loss of her parliamentary seat in Kenya’s December 2007 elections means that Maathai’s future in politics is uncertain – at least, in the immediate to short-term.


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