alexa Wangari's was a lone voice in the wilderness but it saved Uhuru Park - Daily Nation

Wangari's was a lone voice in the wilderness but it saved Uhuru Park

Monday October 2 2006

Today continues the three-part serialisation of UNBOWED: One Woman's Story, an autobiography of Professor Wangari Maathai – winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. The autobiography was published by Random House, 2006. The first part was published in the Sunday Nation yesterday. 

In the autumn of 1989, I was working late in the office when a young law student knocked on my door.

He told me that he had learned from very reliable sources that the Government was planning to build a skyscraper in Uhuru Park.

The park, which is located west of Uhuru Highway in the very heart of Nairobi, is the equivalent of Hyde Park in London and Central Park in New York City or any central open space in any city of the world – a large green swath amid the bustle of crowds and the concrete and steel of the metropolis. Its lawns, paths, boating lake, and trees provide millions of people in Nairobi with a natural environment for recreation, gatherings, quiet walks, or simply a breath of fresh air.

Vehicles drive past the fence demarcating the

Vehicles drive past the fence demarcating the area where the Kenya Times complex was to be build at Uhuru Park in 1989. According to Prof Wangari Maathai's autobiography, the then President Moi gave the project his seal of approval and said that those who opposed it had "insects in their heads." Photo/File .


What this young man told me was shocking. Uhuru Park provided everyone, whether young or old, rich or poor, with some respite in a city that was growing rapidly, as sprawling housing estates and commercial buildings took over land that was previously grassland or forest. Nairobi was no longer the "Green City in the Sun" I had walked in over twenty years before. While there were other parks, they were not in the centre of town and not as large. Even Uhuru Park itself was shrinking. Over the years, a hotel, a road, a members only golf course, and a football stadium had all been built on land that had been part of the park. 

Building a monument

In 1988, the Government had further encroached on the park by building a monument near the intersection of Kenyatta Avenue and Uhuru Highway that celebrated ten years of President Moi’s Nyayo philosophy and twenty-five years of independence. It had cost almost a million US dollars. It was a bitter irony that the park, named to celebrate our independence, was subjected, like so many of Kenya’s public goods, to land grabbers in the Government.

By 1989, the park covered only thirty-four acres. Despite these past intrusions into the park, nothing would, literally, cast such a shadow over it as the proposed Kenya Times Media Trust Complex.

As envisioned, the complex would consist of a tower sixty stories high and would house, among other things, the headquarters for Kanu, the Kenya Times newspaper (the organ of the ruling party), a trading centre, offices, an auditorium, galleries, shopping malls, and parking space for two thousand cars. The tower would be the tallest building of its kind in Africa and the complex would cost in the region of four billion Kenyan shillings (then about $200 million) to construct. Most of the costs would be funded through a loan guarantee from the Government to the private investors involved. The plan also called for a huge statue of President Moi.

On October 3, 1989, I wrote a letter on Green Belt Movement stationery to the managing director of the Kenya Times inquiring about the complex and urging him not to build it if the rumours about the plans were true. The park provided people with recreational facilities, I said, a break from life in the concrete jungle and a resting place where they could spend their free time. 

I reminded him that it was a space for public meetings and national celebrations, a playground for many city children, and that future generations were relying on us to keep the park in the form that it had been bequeathed to us. I sent copies of the letter to the office of the President, the Nairobi City Commission, the provincial commissioner, the minister for Environment and Natural Resources, and the executive directors of UNEP and the Environment Liaison Centre International.

I also sent copies to the Kenyan Press, and a small story about my appeal ran in the Daily Nation on October 4.

In the manner typical of the Government of the day, instead of responding, the regime ignored me. When the office of the President did not reply, I started writing to other offices, and the more I wrote the more they knew that I knew, and the more the word spread.

Fortunately, many journalists were very interested and pleased I was raising this issue, and as they reported on my new campaign, people around the country began to take notice. Kenya was still reeling from the blatantly rigged elections just a year earlier and many Kenyans, including the Press, felt powerless against the Government. They were, therefore, happy that someone was speaking out.

On October 26, three weeks after my initial letter, I wrote to Sir John Johnson, the British High Commissioner in Nairobi, urging him to intervene with Robert Maxwell, who along with Kanu was reported to be one of the major shareholders in the project and was then the proprietor of London’s Mirror Group Newspapers. I requested that Sir John ask Mr Maxwell to recognise that while many Africans might not know the full consequences of their environmental actions, people in Western Europe, Japan, and America had no such excuse. Surely the British and Americans wouldn’t tolerate a tower block in the middle of Hyde Park or Central Park, I suggested to him, so why then should the people of Nairobi?

Although I had been writing all these letters, the authorities refused to reply to me directly. Instead, they spoke through the media. At a Press conference in mid-October the minister for Lands and Housing told the Daily Nation that those who opposed the tower were "ill-informed" and said that the complex would be a "landmark." I replied with an open letter to the minister outlining my concerns, which I shared with the Press.

Magnificent work

In the November 7 edition of the Standard, a widely read daily newspaper whose shareholders at that time were mainly Kanu officials or supporters, the minister for Local Government and Physical Planning denied that the Times complex would take more than a small portion of public park land. He lauded it as a "fine and magnificent work of architecture," and called those who opposed the project the "ignorant few."

I wrote to him that same day and asked him to consider the environmental consequences of the decision to let the project go ahead. The logic behind the complex, I suggested, was the same as the attitude of development with destruction that had led to acid rain, poisoned rivers, deforestation, and climate change. I exhorted him to solicit the opinions of people whom I considered not the "ignorant few" but the "informed many" in Nairobi and to reconsider the plan.

I closed with an appeal: "We have tried to reach out and plead with all relevant authorities over the imposing Times complex at Uhuru Park. We appeal to Nairobi residents to raise their voices even higher. 'Do not be afraid of speaking out when you know that you are in the right. Fear has never been a source of security. Speak out and stand up while you can. If the ministers refuse to listen, the President will. If the ministers ignore us we will keep going until our faint voices reach the President at State House. He too claims to be an environmentalist and he cares for his people.’ "

This last observation was true – to a degree. Earlier that year, President Moi had publicly burned millions of Kenyan shillings’ worth of poached elephant ivory before the world’s cameras and to the world’s applause. It was perhaps a vain expectation, but I hoped that his newly burnished environmental image might influence his attitude toward the park as well.

The Government was so arrogant at that time that in addition to not answering my letters directly and belittling my concerns via the Press, it began to abuse me in public. On November 8, 1989, members of Parliament used a procedure reserved for a national emergency to interrupt their ongoing debate to discuss... me.

For forty-five minutes, MPs, including a minister and an assistant minister, lined up to express their outrage at what I had done.

How dare I write to a foreign government over what they considered a sovereign issue! Had not Kenya achieved independence years ago? Furthermore, the President himself was internationally recognised for his commitment to the environment.

One MP claimed I had called for people to rise up against the Government, a statement he considered "ugly and ominous" and that deserved to land me in court. 

Then the abuse turned personal. To the cheers of a packed house, one MP said that because I had supposedly repudiated my husband in public, I could not be taken seriously and that my behaviour had damaged his respect for all women. He accused me of incitement and warned Green Belt Movement members (my "clique of women" as he called them) to tread carefully. "I don’t see the sense at all in a bunch of divorc es coming out to criticise such a complex," he concluded.

As I read the newspaper headlines – "MPs Condemn Prof Maathai" and "Prof Maathai Under Fire in Parliament"– I knew that this was just what I needed to stake my ground. What had begun as my attempt to answer the call of a young law student had become a contest between me, asking the government to explain its actions, and the Government behaving badly in response.

The day after my vilification in Parliament, I wrote a letter to Philip Leakey, who was my constituency MP and an assistant minister for Environment, to respond to what, as I’d read in the papers, had been said in Parliament about me. I explained that the only reason I had written to the British High Commission was that one of the investors in the project was Robert Maxwell, whose whereabouts I did not know, and that it was absurd to call me anti-government because I had simply raised a question. I noted the President’s interest in the environment, and said that it was precisely because of this concern, which I shared, that I had thought if I raised my voice about the Times complex he might hear me.

Far from acting against the spirit of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Kenya’s independence from Britain, I continued, I was acting in the spirit of Uhuru, or freedom. "When I see Uhuru Park and contemplate its meaning," I wrote, "I feel compelled to fight for it so that my grandchildren may share that dream and that joy of freedom as they one day walk there."

At another time and in another forum, I told Mr Leakey, I would discuss my marital status with the MPs, since they were so interested, but that I wanted to keep the focus on the issue at hand. "The debate is on the proposed Times complex at Uhuru Park," I wrote, and MPs should not be distracted by, as I put it, "the anatomy below the line (if they know what I mean)." In spite of what the MPs might think, I assured him, my being a woman was irrelevant. Instead, the debate over the complex required the use of "the anatomy of whatever lies above the neck!"

On November 16, I wrote to the President directly, urging him in an appeal of "last resort" to stop the construction of the complex. I suggested that saving Uhuru Park for Kenya’s children, ordinary people, and future generations would be symbolic of his personal commitment to preservation of the world’s environment. I never heard back.

As the public debate over the complex grew, some professional organisations, including the Architectural Association of Kenya, also raised objections to building in the park. More important, the people themselves spoke out. In fact, the more the Government urged them to stay quiet, the more they raised their voices. I was thrilled when men and women dared to send letters to newspapers and weekly magazines in support of what I was doing. 

Heed people's wishes

"This is where I escape from the crowded [housing] estates over the weekend or during the holidays," one writer said about the park. "A green belt in the city creates a meaningful contrast to the concrete jungle," wrote another. Others recalled with pleasure their visits to the park after a day’s work, or at lunchtime, or on the weekend. Children also wrote. "Uhuru Park is where my parents take me over the weekend," one said.

Many letter writers tied the fight for the park to the issue of democracy in Kenya and the Government’s reluctance to heed the people’s wishes. "I have one suggestion to make," read one letter published in the Weekly Review. "The names of all MPs who vigorously bulldozed this project forward should be engraved prominently in the complex. This will allow future generations to know who robbed them of their favourite recreation facility, Uhuru Park."

During the course of the struggle over the complex, I felt strongly that I was doing the right thing – popular opinion notwithstanding.

So, I didn’t experience fear on a daily basis. I don’t tend to invite challenges, but I meet them. And once I do, I stick with it. I know the situation is not going to be resolved overnight, and I don’t hurry to meet a second challenge until the first is concluded. That, perhaps, has been my strong point. I have seen time and again that if you stay with a challenge, if you are convinced that you are right to do so, and if you give it everything you have, it is amazing what can happen.

Nonetheless, it was hard at times to be the focus of so much negative attention and in the glare of the public spotlight. It was also very destructive for my children (Waweru and Wanjira were in the United States, and so had to follow the events from a distance), and for my family and friends.

Some days, as I walked from the Green Belt offices at the corner of University Way and Moi Avenue down the street toward the Khoja mosque, I could see people I knew crossing the road to avoid me. Or I would meet friends on the street and they wouldn’t want to stand and talk because they were afraid to be associated with me.

Even though the debate had reached the floor of Parliament and the public arena, the fight was far from over. On November 15, at an official ceremony, ground was broken for the complex in Uhuru Park. At the end of the month, I sought an injunction in the High Court to halt construction, but the case was thrown out on December 11. By this time, the independence of the judiciary had been so compromised that the decision did not surprise me.

I appealed to the acting Attorney-General, who was not sympathetic. While I lost the legal battles, these actions nonetheless helped generate publicity – I issued a Press release about the court’s decision – and we garnered more support from Kenyans. The controversy over the park, my court case, and the comments of President Moi and others regularly featured on the front pages of Kenya’s newspapers and the international media were beginning to cover the story.

Still, the personal attacks continued. In early December, President Moi made his first public comments about the Times complex and the controversy. He gave the project his seal of approval and offered his opinion that those who opposed the complex had "insects in their heads." On December 12, Jamhuri Day, when Kenyans celebrate independence, the President gave a speech, from Uhuru Park no less. He condemned the Law Society of Kenya and the the National Council of Churches of Kenya for perceived criticisms of the Government, and singled me out for opposing the complex. Moi also suggested that if I was to be a proper woman in "the African tradition" – I should respect men and be quiet.

Prompted by President Moi, who wondered in that speech why the women of Kenya had not spoken out against this "wayward" woman, the leadership of Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, our former National Council of Women colleagues and now a faithful branch of Kanu, criticised me for "having belittled the President and the Government." They held rallies and Press conferences to denounce me. At one point they suggested that I had "gone astray and should seek guidance from [my] fellow women."

 Ten days before Christmas 1989, just when we thought things could not get more challenging, the Government decided to evict the Green Belt Movement from the Government offices it had been operating from under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Kenya. Jomo Kenyatta’s administration had been very supportive of civil society in general and the NCWK in particular, and had given the NCWK office space many years previously. When President Kenyatta died and President Moi took over, we were moved from the house we were occupying and given an office next to the Central Police Station. This was a very old, wooden building, part of which was used as a book storage depot by the Ministry of Education.

Government was outraged

Our workspace consisted of subdivided offices and a meeting area in one long block. Although it was somewhat ramshackle and a little cramped, the situation was satisfactory.

Technically, however, the building was owned by the Government, although it had forgotten we were there until I inadvertently drew attention to our address in a Press interview. The Government was outraged that it was housing this "wayward woman" and her organisation. The day after the President’s Jamhuri Day speech in Uhuru Park, the police officer in charge ordered us to vacate the building – within twenty-four hours. 

I moved the Green Belt Movement to my house in South C. I converted my small bungalow and garden, where I had grown sweet potatoes and grazed two goats, into an office for our staff, which then numbered eighty. I had to add an underground water tank because we didn’t have enough water for sanitation and I needed two extra toilets. The day we moved, police ransacked the old office, and threw papers and books out of the building.

As 1990 began, I decided to make a peace offering: I issued a statement thanking the President for abiding by the rule of law and allowing free speech to air the differences over the Times complex. My aim was not to be deliberately confrontational but to encourage movement on the issue. I also wanted to return the focus to our primary job, which was planting trees.

Just a few days later, however, the Registrar-General ordered the Green Belt Movement to provide its audited accounts for the past five consecutive years. I saw this as another attempt by the Government to deregister the movement and make its activities illegal. But I wanted to beat them at their own game. When I discussed the situation with Vertistine Mbaya, who as Green Belt’s treasurer oversaw all the accounts, she said, "Let’s send them ten years of accounts!"

And we did. In the letter that accompanied the records, I asked the Government to supply me with one year of its audited accounts of the ruling party, since I knew that Kanu was not regularly audited.

As you might expect, I never received a reply to that request. 

By early 1990, despite the resistance of the authorities to any of my appeals, it was becoming clear that the Government could no longer ignore the chorus of opposition both inside and outside Kenya to the Times complex.

Put pressure on investors

During the last months of 1989 I had written letters to many individuals abroad in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and West Germany – politicians, media moguls, activists, and philanthropists – and asked them to put pressure on investors to ensure that the complex wasn’t built in the park. 

Once again, I appealed to them to recognise that while people in developing countries might not know about the kind of destructive development that the Times complex represented, or be able to stop it, there could be no such excuse for those in developed countries. I asked them to pressure their governments not to do business with dictators, whom they knew full well were oppressing their citizens and stealing their money, and not to hold poor people to account for the crimes of their rulers.

Journalists from some leading American and British newspapers, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the United Kingdom’s Independent, among others, reported on our struggle. This helped raise awareness among environmentalists and pro-democracy campaigners in Europe and North America. For the first time, many of them were hearing Africans raising their voices to protect their own environment and green spaces.

Message was heard

Alerted by some of their citizens, foreign investors and donor governments now questioned the wisdom of spending such a vast sum of money on a building of dubious usefulness in a poor country that was already struggling with large domestic and international debts.

At last, our message was heard. On January 29, 1990, the Government announced that its plans for the complex had changed. The sixty-story tower was considerably scaled back and the project’s cost reduced to around US$60 million. The international media reported that, after a London meeting with the World Bank and other donors, Kenyan officials appeared no longer to be backing the project. For the next two years the project limped on as an idea, but nothing more was built on the site. The investment simply wasn’t there and the costs all around were too high.

One day, late in February 1992, I woke up and learned that the fence surrounding the building site in Uhuru Park had been removed at about three o’clock that morning. That day, a group of women were meeting at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in downtown Nairobi. When I got there, the women were eager to let me know that the Times complex was dead – as dead as a dodo. "Let’s go to the park," I called to the women, "and dance, a dance of victory!" On the way, I bought a wreath to hang at the site to declare the project dead and buried.

Tomorrow: The battle to save Karura Forest