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A deeply tense Kenya should remember Wangari Maathai

Thursday October 19 2017

Wangari Maathai

Prof Wangari Maathai smiles radiantly after winning the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 2004. Apart from being the first African woman to win the coveted prize, Prof Maathai, when she became a minister, sought to change the letter font and space used in government documents. This, she believed would reduce the papers used and in the long term, the trees cut. PHOTO | JOHN MCCONNICO | AFP 

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A few days ago, a conversation with a Kenyan activist took me to a very strange place.

With Kenya in the throes of a seemingly endless election cycle, one question was what would be the legacy of President Uhuru Kenyatta (or of his first term if he won a second one).

To explain the strange ways in which a legacy works, we ended up talking about Prof Wangari Maathai, partly because the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), had just been announced as the winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

Wangari Maathai, who died in September 2011, won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.


Given her larger than life image in the environmental and Kenyan democracy movements, there were some who thought that in appointing her as assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources, President Mwai Kibaki had given Wangari Maathai a “ka small thing”. She deserved to be full minister.


For her part, she carried on with the job with energy and good spirit. Why did she? That is where the story got very interesting.

When Wangari Maathai became a minister, she chose a seemingly strange and obscure battle — to change the font size and spacing of official government documents.

Most people wouldn’t think that is how to gain fame.


When the Kibaki  government took office, long-standing tradition had been to write official communication in either Size 14 or 16 font (letter type) size, and the gap between the lines was one-and-a-half or two spaces.

A lot of money and bureaucratic fortunes hang on these seemingly mundane things.

There is, for example, the old-fashioned and erroneous view that the bigger a report, the more serious and comprehensive it is.

Thus, a 50-page report which is printed in Size 10 font, and single space, could become a meaty 125-page product printed at Size 15 font and double spaced.


If your ream of printing paper has 250 sheets, it will give you only two copies of the report printed on one face.

For the small stationery shop that has a contract to supply printing paper to the ministry, the big fonts and double spaces are big business.

If just 10 copies of the report were printed, it would sell five reams of paper.

But there was another even harder shilling face to it.


If the government set up a committee to investigate, say,  cattle rustling in Turkana, and it produced a 25-page report because it was in point 10 size font, it would be deemed not to have done its work.

It might be that the committee spent some Sh50 million.

Burning all that for a 25-pager, would bring howls of protest, and the waste and corruption would become a big story in the media.

However, just increasing the margins, going to font 16 and slapping a huge space between the lines would bring the same report close to 100 pages.

Now that would be considered “substantial”.


If the committee ate Sh40 million and only used Sh10 million, it would get roasted over the small report.

But by just increasing the size and space of the letters, it would get praise instead. Letter size was, therefore, a big deal.

Wangari Maathai, being a top environmentalist, wanted to save on the amount of paper the government uses, because it would translate into fewer trees somewhere being cut down to make them.

Therefore, Wangari Maathai chose to reduce the official letter font and spaces in government documents, and also pushed a policy to print on both sides of a paper.

My activist friend tells me many of her colleagues were bemused, and others dismissive.


They thought that it was just another of Wangari Maathai’s quixotic green pursuits.

One man, President Kibaki, was sufficiently intrigued by the eccentricity of it, and offered the political support that made it possible.

Today, government documents are printed in sensible 10 or 12 font size, with single spacing.

Most people have forgotten, or don’t know that there was a time when the story was different.

“It was easily the most radical thing to happen in the Kenyan Government in over a decade, and something that endures today,” he said. “The trees that didn’t die, the savings that were made were enormous. But no one thinks about it and it will never make it into the history books.

“That,” he said, “is a legacy”.


The author is publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site [email protected]