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Lest we forget: W. Maathai awakens

Friday May 8 2015

The late Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai. PHOTO|

The late Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai. PHOTO| FILE 

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The evergreen Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) is the subject of a new book that provokes us to think about the poor leadership we continue to suffer and the reasons we may not produce other people like Wangari Maathai any time soon from the poor cadres of our population.

Published by Lantern Books in New York, Prof Namulundah Florence’s Wangari Maathai: Visionary, Environmental Leader, Political Activist (2014) examines the life of the icon and puts it in the context of women liberation, educational policies, and environmental conservation. 

Prof Maathai was a pioneer in many ways. She was the first woman in eastern and central Africa to earn a PhD and the first Kenyan woman to earn a master of science degree. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Namulundah, a Kenyan professor of education at the City University of New York (CUNY), is seemingly inspired by the environmentalist’s down-to-earth style, as she writes in clear lively prose.


Does the book say anything new about Wangari Maathai that we cannot find in her autobiography, Unbowed (2006)? Probably not. It rightly assumes that its readers already know the details about the icon’s life; its duty seems to be to put Wangari in the social and economic context of her growth into an intellectual colossus in a way that would inspire other women.


Like a dictatorial regime, the male-dominated academy has an investment in keeping women and other marginalised voices quiet. Kenya’s former president, Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002), once urged Maathai to be a “proper woman in the African tradition by respecting men and being silent”. 

Probably there are male historians that would want Namulundah Florence to be a “proper historian” (which is a code expression for “quote us” and qualify our arguments with boot-licking adjectives like “seminal”, “salient” and “succinct”).

To her credit, Namulundah does not rely on the usual white male suspects; the most insightful parts of the book are those in which she draws on the work of women historians like Professor Tabitha Kanogo. 


By doing so, she resists the tendency to use African women as a passive source of data in masculinist studies that, not unlike the English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s attitude towards Africans in the 1960s, still deny the plain fact that women can think. 

Readers will have to supplement it with their own politics in order to use Wangari’s life as a seed toward a better social order.

Seemingly written for an international audience, the book does not capture very well the local political dynamics, where we seem to shun leaders of integrity like Maathai in favour of academic dwarfs, determined under-achievers, land thieves, and mass murderers of international disrepute.

It is because the masses and a masochistic Press have much more faith in miscreants than in good leaders that the country has been sliding towards state-sanctioned anarchy, hurting the interests of the very forces that propped the mortally wounded hoodlums into power. 

It bears to remember that in 1997, her own people voted Wangari out of Parliament for opposing their tribal demigod. As long as Africa continues to be apathetic to leaders like Maathai (until they are dead, of course), we’ll never solve any of our problems. 


African regimes do a lot of things that Wangari wouldn’t do because, like their western counterparts, the African ruling elites have a lot to gain when our blood flows on the streets.

For example, terrorist groups do not manufacture guns. And don’t accept the lie that groups like ISIS, al Queda, Ngono Haram and Bila Sababu (or whatever you call them) use arms supplied to them in the 1980s, when the terrorists were pro-western and therefore supposedly good people. 

The guns they use to kill us are likely to be new; someone is making a quick buck out of our deaths while at the same time pretending to be fighting terror. Western thugs and their local stooges are in business; they need a market for arms, keeping both sides in the conflict well supplied with weapons.

I want to briefly exclude the Kenyan government from the remark I’m about to make regarding African ruling elites because our politicians are altruistic and all-loving; they will send nice condolence letters to our families when terrorists kill us.


Unlike our Kenyan leaders (aren’t we so blessed?), an African government will have intelligence about a terrorist attack, and even possess the capacity to neutralise terrorists within minutes, but do nothing to shield us from sure death when terrorists strike because the success of such an attack enhances its chances of remaining its Western sponsors’ partners in the war on terror.

Playing the victim card, the government gets financial aid, and the West will not be too noisy as usual about corruption, nepotism, and human rights abuse. The opposition can be silenced also as tacitly supporting terrorism if it criticises the government in this time of crisis and external aggression.

I must admit that, growing up in central Kenya in the 1980s, I was like our politicians; I never had Maathai as my role model. Planting trees was not sexy. I wanted to become a Kikuyu pop musician — complete with a wide-brimmed hat and cowboy boots of my own.  

Had I succeeded, I’d probably be composing proverb-packed songs urging a dictatorial regime to clamp down on the opposition or singing about how in the next election we need to save Nairobi hawkers from oppression by electing, according to one of the songs by Gachathi wa Thuo, a “chokora” (street urchin) as the Nairobi governor. 


The song cues the listener to the fact that the “chokora” referred to here is not the literal one in a “kiara” (rubbish dump); the urchin is a metaphor for probably a specific semi-literate and primitive politician (of a different calibre from Maathai’s).

As Amilcar Cabral noted in the late 1960s, the failure of political change in Africa results from lack of political theorising. 

The song about a “chokora” as our messiah notes in a stanza that echoes Frantz Fanon’s “The Pitfalls of Nationalist Consciousness” that a new regime in Kenya is just like the one that preceded it, only that the oppression becomes cruder and more blatant than before. 

Our problems arise from the fact that we elect people who, unlike Maathai, cannot theorise appropriately or whose only track record is stealing from public coffers. These are people who have never planted a tree in their life and cannot even qualify as taxi drivers in Korogocho.

So we shouldn’t complain when the so-called leaders (intrinsically anti-Maathai in their ideology of stealing and playing dice with our lives) continue sacrificing us to their brother, the terrorist, for the elites’ political mileage.

We have allowed African governments to play us with orgasmic abandon, as if they are beating the steel drums of Orchestra Lipua Lipua…tsss, tsss, tttssssss!


We keep making mistakes, missing the high standards Maathai set. I know that if I were born a decade later than I was, I’d probably be nothing today. Our educational institutions have progressively deteriorated, and children from poor backgrounds like Maathai and many of us have no chance today to break the vicious circle of poverty they were born into.

But the greatest tragedy is that instead of training young schoolgirls to demand their rights and to grow into no-nonsense women like Maathai, we use them as objects of entertainment for politicians in televised public gatherings.

Here the little girl, cute as a button, performs a poem loaded with coquettish bootlicking, begging to come sit next to the kleptomaniacal guest of honour, whom she even occasionally refers to as “uncle” not only to register personal affection for the politician but also to claim unbreakable blood lineage with him.

I’m sure the Wangari Maathai presented in Prof Namulundah’s book turns in her grave whenever she sees adult women applauding the misuse of little girls to entertain male politicians.