Wangari Maathai is Dead – Therefore, send not to know For whom the bell tolls
A Personal Memory of Wangari Maathai by Mwalimu Mati
A week ago I was asked by a friend in the United Nations system to try and find Prof. Wangari Maathai because they were unable to. My task was to communicate to her that on October 31st 2011, the United Nations Population Fund wished to have her attend a special ceremony of seven world leaders (including heads and past heads of governments and states) to commemorate the event of the global human population crossing the 7 billion person mark. Wangari Maathai’s office did not let on, but it is now apparent that she was not going to make that date in New York. This morning I woke to the sad news of her passage.
This afternoon I watched an impassioned Wangari Maathai in a recorded interview with one of Kenya’s foremost interviewers Jeff Koinange on K24 TV where she urged action for conservation and indeed immediate replanting of our forests. In particular she was demanding the reclaiming of the Mau Forests Complex and the eviction of such as Daniel Arap Moi – and his Kiptagich Tea Farm.
It reminded me that one of my formative career experiences was working, in 1989, for the Public Law Institute which represented her in her famous legal battle against the Kenya Times Media Trust – KANU – and Robert Maxwell – who planned a 60 storey skyscraper as headquarters for KANU and its then propaganda outfit the Kenya Times Media Trust. We lost. She was thrown out of court within a week for lack of locus standi – and I learnt from her lawyer Oki Ooko Ombaka the dictum “sometimes you win in losing”. Wangari Maathai won. The financiers for Arap Moi’s USD 200 million project scampered for safety as a result of the effective and embarrassing protest Wangari Maathai generated; and what was more, the World Bank, IMF and bi-lateral partners swiftly abandoned Arap Moi for his dictatorial and megalomaniacal tendencies. For her patriotic action, Wangari Maathai was targeted for subsequent beatings, arrests and violent suppression. Yet she ultimately prevailed.
Wangari Maathai’s protest over Uhuru Park resulted in the Freedom Park struggle for the release of political prisoners in Kenya – and she is definitely one of the most prominent Mothers of the Freedom Corner which continues to remain a free space – albeit with interference from indisciplined and ignorant opponents of freedom from time to time. Freedom Corner galvanized political opposition parties and gained them votes. They exploited the opportunity but didn’t take to heart the ideals of that forum. When in December 2002, Arap Moi’s KANU was defeated, the new NARC government refused to recognize Wangari Maathai with a substantive position. She was made an underling to Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka who was the National Organising Secretary of the KANU which tried to despoil Uhuru Park with a monument to Arap Moi’s vanity. So it must have been a great shock to the reactionaries in 2004 when the Nobel Peace Prize Committee awarded Wangari Maathai with the great accolade of the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”
Wangari Maathai was someone I knew from childhood. She was a great friend and contemporary of my parents and so I will always appreciate how, as I joined the ranks of the struggle, she always treated me with collegial respect; even when I had no clue what I was doing.
Back to the Jeff Koinange interview. What struck me was that Wangari Maathai kept repeating almost fatalistic phrases – “Nature doesn’t care – she will eventually act – when the earth warms and the seas rise where will you safe Kenyans be? ” etc… What also struck me is that she made her point even as she lost her case once again.
It was poetry and prediction wrapped into one – Prof. Maathai – just as you might have said;
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Kenya and the World is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Kenyans have heard the bell toll – the question is, are they still asking for whom it tolls?
About Wangari Maathai and the Salvation of Uhuru Park:
Nairobi Journal; Skyscraper’s Enemy Draws a Daily Dose of Scorn
By JANE PERLEZ, Special to The New York Times
Published: December 6, 1989
NAIROBI, Kenya, Dec. 3— On recent mornings, Prof. Wangari Maathai has postponed reading the newspapers until she arrives at the office, where she braces herself over a cup of hot tea for the daily fulminations against her.
The environmental movement she heads was labeled ”subversive,” a code word generally interpreted as meaning anti-Government. When she filed a lawsuit against the governing party, she was accused of taking President Daniel arap Moi himself to court, a sign of ultimate disrespect. She has been scoffed at in Parliament and during debate described, on the ground of her divorce years ago, as a woman who disliked men.
Professor Maathai has drawn the vilification, unusual even in the highly personalized politics of Kenya, because of her boldness in criticizing the governing party’s decision to build a 60-story skyscraper in a downtown park.
But in Kenya and indeed much of Africa, Professor Maathai herself is unusual: a high-profile, independent woman, not involved in Government (where a few women have attained distinction), who has built a popular women’s movement based on the planting of trees. ‘A Woman Who Stands Up’
And in Africa, where a recent World Bank report estimated that women are responsible for 70 percent of the staple food production but are ”the most neglected” rural people, a national movement for women by women is rare.
Professor Maathai is not alone in thinking that the scorn expressed by the members of Parliament, and indirectly by President Moi – people who oppose the skyscraper have ”insects in their head,” he said – stems in part from the fact that she is a woman.
After taking in the latest morning dose of bad news, she said: ”They can’t stand a woman who stands up. I’m being seen as an arrogant woman because I dare to object. I call them arrogant.”
What seems to be riveting Kenyans to the fight between the environmentalist – Professor Maathai is best known in Kenya as head of the Green Belt Movement – and the Government is that she keeps hitting back. Trees and Money for Women
First she sent letters to Government ministers, then filed her lawsuit, then followed up with more stiff letters, which were retorts to the parliamentary criticism of her and her cause.
”If I didn’t react to their interfering with this central park, I may as well not plant another tree,” she said. ”I cannot condone that kind of activity and call myself an environmentalist.”
A former professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi, Professor Maathai – the academic title is always used in the Kenyan press and by her associates -has been involved in the Green Belt Movement since 1977, when it was founded to plant trees for a multitude of reasons: to stop soil erosion, for use as fuel, for beautification, and as an income earner for the women who plant. The organization supports hundreds of tree nurseries that in turn issue tree seedlings for the creation of green belts on public and private lands.
For every tree that survives more than three months outside the nursery, the woman who planted it receives 50 Kenya cents (about 2.5 American cents). For many women who are subsistence farmers and have no food left over to sell, the money from tree planting is their only income, Professor Maathai said. Foes Make Divorce an Issue
”We try to make women see they can do something worthwhile,” she said. ”And we’re trying to empower people, to let them identify their mistakes, to show they can build or destroy the environment.” With the Kenyan branch having set the pace -more than 10 million indigenous trees have been planted – the movement has taken hold in more than 30 other African countries.
For her work, Professor Maathai received a United Nations Environmental Program Global 500 award for protection of the environment, a prize that was given to President Moi last year. In October, she flew to London to accept a ”Woman of the World” citation from the Princess of Wales.
Professor Maathai won a scholarship to the United States in the early 1960′s when the Kennedy Administration financed Kenyans to study at American colleges in preparation for independence. She has a master’s in biology from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate from Nairobi University.
She has been prominent in the capital for more than a decade, and not only for her environmental work. In the early 1980′s, she was the subject of a highly publicized divorce suit that her detractors chose to revive last month. Accusation of Adultery
Her husband, a Member of Parliament, publicly accused her of adultery with another Member of Parliament and sued for divorce. Professor Maathai lost the divorce case and accused the judge of being incompetent. For that, she was jailed for a night and released after she promised to apologize.
She decided to run for Parliament and resigned her chairmanship of the university department to do so. But then she found she was disqualified on a technicality from becoming a candidate.
She then decided to bolster the Green Belt Movement, which was being run under the auspices of the National Women’s council, of which she was chairman. The movement, assailed during the current parliamentary fury against her for receiving money from ”queer corners” – a reference to overseas donors – is financially supported by the African Development Foundation in Washington, Scandinavian aid organizations and the United Nations. Fears for the Movement
What worries her most is that the political attacks on her are aimed not only at discouraging her from speaking out but at weakening the Green Belt Movement. She says she believes that it is vulnerable.
”The majority of the people in the movement are poor; they are not reading the newspapers,” she said.
”They hear this second hand, that the movement is subversive. Then they are scared. They don’t want to be seen as against the Government, which can lead you into a lot of trouble. And a lot of politicians know that is the way the people feel.”