Professor Wangari Maathai is dead. A great African is dead and she died on 25th September in Nairobi, in Kenya where she was born. Her achievements are many and in late in her life she began to receive all the recognition that was due her. You can read about how she was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to make the voiceless in Kenya realise that together, no government however powerful or entrenched could dare not listen to their demands and wishes.
She received that prize too because, long before global warming was a bar topic and TV panel round of experts obsession, intuitively, she mourned the loss of trees and nature but went further than elegiac wailing. She decided to try and stem the loss by, a tree at a time, replanting all over Kenya where communities would let her, the trees that huge lumber hungry companies had swept past like locusts from a Pharaoh’s Egypt, devastating and not replenishing.
You can read all about her honours. The first woman in East and Central Africa to receive a doctorate degree. To go on to become a Professor, much sought after by international universities and the speaking tour circuit, distractions she only bowed to when she needed the money to return it home to Kenya to fund what were always her passions-empowering the powerless from whom she had sprung, and like a mother goddess, seemed to derive all her strength from constant communion with them.
I could tell you about her achievements but that would miss why her death, like few deaths (South Africa's Brenda Fassie, François Luambo Makiadi of Congo, Uganda's DJ Allan ‘Cantankerous’ Mugisa) touches me. Has left me, in fact stunned. With a sense of grief two days later after I first learned of her death from Kenya’s Citizen TV, I’m still thinking about her, with a sadness like I knew her personally.
I feel like I knew her personally. For the courage of her life. Demonstrating that an individual can make a difference simply by honestly and humbly following their passion wherever it may lead them. Will in fact make their community better, because human nature, like a child, learns by seeing, not by preached at. The Green Belt movement started by Maathai, probably on a Saturday afternoon when she should have been seated on a veranda watching her three children screaming in childish delight instead took the noon off to go plant that first tree. Then somehow again, went and planted another tree. Pretty soon, everyone was asking why can we not have Uhuru Park a green space in Nairobi. Then, in a Moi Kenya long dominated by the “professor of politics,” questioning, “But why should one man rule us forever like we do not have other leaders?” The seed sprouting to a mighty tree.
A barrier breaker in her personal life as much as in her career, almost without by accident. Most of the time, you sensed, simply because Maathai did not sit down to wonder, “Can it be done?” Her driving zeal seemed always to be, “How can I do this?” Unwittingly, for me, Maathai becoming a “new” kind of African woman by breaking all the rules in gender relations in her community all the while desperately trying not.
Gender relations all Africans are still grappling with, influenced by a world that is no longer deniable by shutting the iron gray front door because it is already in all our domains. Through the TVs we watch to the MTN modem that brings the world wide web a whole lot closer, by a searching mouse click.
Maathai, once a married woman, with children, to a man who found her “unrelenting stubbornness” increasingly impossible to bear with, chucking her out. A hungry media and speculators quick to jump to her aid, Maathai refusing to resort to the pride armour of self defence that would have been expected. Resisting the temptation to trash talk her former husband, when she would have “won more points,” for doing so as an independent modern woman who does not need a man. In hewing to her dignity that was genderless but of the heart, respecting and a tribute to the memory of an intimacy of many years which would never end because of the living, recreating gift of their children.
This was the Maathai that mattered to this blogger. I’m guessing, this was probably the Maathai that mattered to a whole lot of people who have considered her a heroine, an inspiration, a role model to draw some of the template of the kind of life they wish to live.