Ever since I was a young girl, the single motivation for women in my wider circle rang with a single two vowel name, Wangari. I knew then that this woman was the one who stopped the grabbing of Uhuru Park, who was beaten at Karura Forest and who was so well read and outspoken, that the Establishment of the time saw fit to call her names in public and humiliate her to no end. I knew she was my preferred woman candidate in 1997. At that time when I, like other Kenyans was inundated by the usual mudslinging and dirty politicking that is so prevalent in Kenya, she ran on a Green platform pledging then as she does now, to commit to preserving resources and good governance.
I was overjoyed when she won her prize in 2004 for her over 30 years’ work with the Greenbelt Movement. As an admirer and budding activist I attended her lecture this past Monday at the University of Pennsylvania’s Green City Symposium organised by UPenn’s Institute for Urban Research. There, for the first time, I heard her speak and I gained a better perspective of the issues that challenged her early on to fight for the better use of resources as a tool for democracy and good governance. I also picked up a copy of her book ‘Unbowed’. I was wowed!
Professor Wangari Muta Maathai’s name is mentioned in the same breath as Mahatma Gandhi and other luminaries as a pillar of change for her generation. In her book she outlines her upbringing in Central Kenya, and her experiences within an environment where people, by tradition revered and cared for the environment. Her education was supported by her family in an era where few women reached high school level and of those who did, a handful went on to professions other than teaching and clerking. However, her dream to study something else together with her top performance put her in line to receive a scholarship with the Kennedy Airlift, prompted in part by the late Tom Mboya. Sadly, she returned to a Kenya where already fuel shortage was becoming a problem and water catchment areas were drying up.This state of affairs was to give impetus to her later activism.
Her studies in the US followed by her return home may ring a bell with women in the sciences who still do not get enough respect for their academic achievements. She returned home to meet and marry her husband, with whom she later separates. She categorises this time in her life under ‘Difficult Years’. She went from her relatively stable life to that of a single broke mother and recalls being unable to buy her kids even a plate of chips. I grew up knowing that chips on an outing was something to be had, however, I digress.Many women have reached the point where they are the sole breadwinners for their homes. Wangari is no exception to the rule, especially as she chronicles the stigma she experienced as a divorced woman in Kenya of the late 70s and 80s. Our society is still so unforgiving.
The book outlines a few key roles that women in the public in Kenya have played over the last few decades as powerful political figures. Naturally, those who remember the National Council of Women of Kenya and the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake triumphs and debacles will refresh their memories. Wangari stood by her husband as he ran for Parliament in the 70s and her own political debut in the late 80s. The contrasts in campaigns illustrate why then as now, Kenya is still not ready to accept women leaders in official capacities.
No story about Wangari Maathai is complete without a mention of the brutality she was dealt by the government to the point of hiding and the injuries she sustained whose scars she bears to date. There is a story that sits in the background of her description, that is, that of her children who saw all that their mother underwent while dealing with her occassional absences as a result. I salute them.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I could go on and on about Wangari Maathai. The better advice for you, dear reader is to order your own copy of Unbowed. In a world where we shy away from reading about other people, her memoir is a portrait of a Kenyan we can tell, ‘Well lived, Aluta Continua’ and truly emulate. A few years ago we had a segment in the local TV stations that said, “So-And-So, A truly great Kenyan. She is one truly great Kenyan.
For me, I say to Dr Maathai what the women said to her, “Wangari, you shall never walk alone, and (my own words) your example shall never be forgotten”