The people are starving. They need food; they need medicine; they need education. They do not need a skyscraper to house the ruling party and a 24-hour TV station ~ The Late Professor Wangari Maathai
The nation is grieving, the downtrodden are heartbroken, the women of this country have lost the precusror to women’s rights and girl child activists that abound aplenty today, the world has lost an unwavering beacon of light in matters environmental, and our planet has lost a loving motherly figure that would fight for it while the cretins that trade in oil and natural resources would rather stack their profits for today and sink the entire planet in one giant carbon footprint in their own lifetimes.
Twenty odd years back, while still a teenager and being a naive architect wannabe, I was quite disappointed and almost livid on learning that Professor Wangari Maathai had, at great risk to herself and with steely unwavering determination, protested and kept protesting untill she had, almost single-handedly, successfully stopped construction of the 60-story Kenya Times Media Trust Complex at the country’s historical Uhuru Park. I knew little of her then beyond what Moi and his dastardly brutal and despotic regime told us, and he said of her efforts and motivation: “ako na wadudu ndani ya kichwa”.
Fifteen years later she had become the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize. Moi, the one that was fifteen years ealier reffered to as baba na mama wa taifa (the father and mother of the nation) and the forermost farmer, teacher, leader and servant, was by now a reviled figure and a caricature of the African strongman that belonged to an era that deserved to go the way of dodo. The tables had turned, and rightly so.
Like most remarkable persons, Wangari was not without her flaws, after all it is the failings of great personalities that give us an insight into their own personal struggles and allows us to see a bit of our own mundane selves reflected in their own lives, it enables the shedding of the aura of being enigmatic and the assumption of imperfect human character and choice that bridge the gap between the storied and the unknown of society. Her husband in 1979 sued for divorce from Wangari, saying she was, cruel, too strong-minded for a woman and that he was unable to control her. He also publicly accused her of adultery with a Member of Parliament and with causing him to have high blood pressure. This action, unfortunate as it was, probably allowed her to spread her wings and apply herself fully to her passion, the environment and issues of equality. Who knows, she might never have gone down in history as a Nobel prize winner and founder of a lasting legacy in the Green Peace Movement had she stayed on and fought to keep an untenable union in conformity with what patriarchal society unfairly demanded of women then.
Professor Wangari also taught us something else; that is the importance of resilience: from being sacked from teaching at University and being thrown out of staff housing; from being blocked from running for political office having resigned from public office already; from keeping vigil with the mothers of detained activists; from fighting with the intolerant Moi regime of which most of us were afraid to even speak of within the private confines of our own bedchambers; to this ultimate grapple with a debilitating malignancy that was done with dignity and stoical resolve, untill sadly the battle was lost yesterday.
But today we celebrate a life lived with purpose, a life worthy of emulation and feel humbled that we lived to see the flame go out in a life that illuminated the globe with the glow of a noble belief that: “We have a special responsibility to the ecosystem of this planet. In making sure that other species survive we will be ensuring the survival of our own.”
“Maybe death is the great equalizer, the one big thing that can finally make strangers shed a tear for one another.”