Wangari Maathai - Unbowed
It has been two weeks since I set to write this, but no words seemed fit enough. How can one say anything about this great lady of the universe?
Wangari Muta Maathai – Rest In Peace.
Monday 26th September 2011 will remain significant to Kenyans. Mondays are interesting days, mostly the bad day. I have made a conscious decision to love Mondays, after all I have to experience one every 7 days! I have realised that attitude is everything and that this works. However, on this day I woke up feeling sluggish and even as I prepared I was not sure I was going to enjoy this day. I therefore didn’t check my phone messages as I woke up as I normally do, but when I finally did in the middle of preparing myself to go to work, I was shocked. I received two text messages from my brother and my sister in law, with one core message “Wangari Maathai is dead!” I felt numb, somehow I still feel like some people are not meant to die, they deserve more than a lifetime, and Wangari Maathai is one of them. I was shocked, and I screamed, “how, why”? I didn’t know Wangari Maathai personally yet I felt at that moment that I did, that I had lost a friend, a mentor, who didn’t know that I existed. At first I felt a loss, a loss of a great woman who I felt needed to live longer and make more impact in this world. But after a few days, I felt I needed to celebrate her life, a life well lived.
Who can ably eulogise this great woman? I do not think any words can be fit enough to express who this woman was for Kenya. She was simply an enigma.
My memories of Wangari go back to the former president Moi era when she was often mistreated, mishandled and beaten up. I particularly remember the day her hair was plucked out, and she was on national television with blood running down the back of her head. How one’s hair be pulled out, and wake up the following day to have the same fight is beyond me. However, this was just one of the ‘minor mishaps’; she had experienced enough, far much worse. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement that started as a movement of women, mostly rural illiterate women to conserve the environment.
While she was on national television often, mostly injured or hauled to prison by the government, reading her memoir ‘unbowed’ leaves one utterly challenged. I first read this book around my birthday in 2010.I had planned to purchase the book, but somehow didn’t get to until a friend asked me what book I wanted for my birthday present; and voila I was in possession of that great story that seems unreal. Reading the book, what struck me as I read the book twice is the simplicity of this woman. She describes a rural girl, growing up in the village; the determination of an African girl in an era that educating kids, let along a girl was out of the ordinary. How such a girl got to pursue PHD degree, in that era is just amazing. She describes her love for nature in the simplest words of a rural girl’ trying to catch the tadpoles in the river. She describes a young woman who knows the gender roles in the cultural context of her times. I still smile at the description of how she had gone to the farm but harvested more than herself and the donkey could take. By the time her and the donkey got home they were so tired and collapsed at the gate!
Her professional life was not smooth, being the first woman from East Africa to get a PHD and lecturing in an institution that had not accommodated the possibilities of women professors in the policies. When Wangari Maathai won the Nobel peace prize in 2004, it was a day of rejoicing for Kenyans and for all women in the world. However, reading the book makes one realise just how much she deserved the prize. Her love for conserving the environment was amazing. She suffered severally in the hands of police and in jail with her undeterred efforts to conserve the environment. Uhuru Park is one of the significant places that will always be associated with her. She persistently lobbied to prevent a skyscraper from being erected in the public park. She also led a non-violent action supporting women of political prisoners in a sit in and strike for a full year. The persistence and determination saw her cross paths with the former president many times, sometimes even fearing for her life.
Her death was not without lessons and shocks as her will stipulated the out of ordinary burial with cremation. Her coffin was not to come from wood- the trees that she had defended all her life but from bamboo and hyacinth, a plant that had caused problems in the Lake Victoria was put to good use.
Prof Wangari will be remembered in Kenya for a long time to come. I feel privileged to have lived in a generation that this great woman lived. Her death has caused action, whether out of guilty or realisation among Kenyans on tree planting. Her legacy is all over in nature, a true daughter of the earth who hugged the soil and trees and any opportunity.
One of the great stories that will be told and retold is the story she tells of the hummingbird.
“One day a terrible fire broke out in a forest - a huge forest was suddenly engulfed by a raging wild fire. Frightened, all the animals fled their homes and ran out of the forest. They felt overwhelmed and powerless expect this little humming bird. It said “I will do something about the fire”. It swooped into the stream and picked up a few drops of water and went into the forest and put them on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again. All the other animals like the elephants with its large trunk that could bring more water; watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird, "Don't bother, the fire is so huge, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is too little, it’s only a drop, you can't put out this fire."
And as the animals continued discouraging it, the hummingbird turned to them without wasting any time said “I am doing the best I can”
Wangari Maathai concludes by saying “that to me is what all of us should do. We should always feel like a hummingbird. I may feel insignificant but I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching as the universe goes up in flames. I will be a hummingbird; I will do the best I can”
She certainly did her best, in a world that barely recognized her efforts and make a big mark in conservation.
May her legacy live forever and ever.
Rest in Peace Maitu, rest in Peace mama, rest in Peace great mother of Africa.