Wangari Maathai: Respected worlwide rejected at home
The best we could give her was an assistant minster for Environment post in 2003 when she joined parliament after a futile run for the country’s top seat.
Her boss then was a person who knew little about the environment. Being the humble woman she, Wangari took the job and decided to focus more on her pet project-the environment-something she held dear in her heart.
Though as a country we relegated her to the periphery of the environment sector(Assistant ministers have very little to do) the world was watching and gave her the highest recognition in 2004- The Noble Peace Prize.
The prize gave her an open visa, literally, to showcase her prowess in leadership-but at home none noticed prowess and she was called mama trees. Even when we were playing politics with the Mau Forest issue she was helping to save the Congo forests. We failed to ask her to assistant us to save our own forests. UNEP puts the number of trees she helped plant in Africa using her NGO The Greenbelt Movement at 30million.
And today she is dead. She has died with all the leadership prowess we so much ignored for four decades. And friends and foes are today praising her for her track record. But we failed in tapping this track record and settled for mediocrity and politics of tribes.
Wangari Maathai’s painful journey to lead Kenya
A lot has been written about Maathai including the first woman in Kenya to get a PhD, but her struggles started way back in the 60s. In 1979, shortly after divorcing her husband , Maathai ran for the position of chairman of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK).
The NCWK was an umbrella organization consisting of many different women’s organizations in the country. By the time she was contesting President Moi who had taken reign from Kenyatta was attempting to limit the amount of influence of Kikuyus in the country, including in volunteer civic organizations such as the NCWK.
She lost this election by three votes, but was overwhelmingly chosen to be the vice-chairman of the organization. The following year, Maathai again ran for chairman of the NCWK. Again she was opposed, she believes, by the government.
She later tried the Maaendeleo Ya Wanawake seat. When it became apparent that she was going to win the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake she was elected unopposed for the NCWK chairperson.
However, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake came to receive a majority of the financial support for women’s programs in the country, and NCWK was left virtually bankrupt. Future funding was much more difficult to come by, but the NCWK survived by increasing its focus on the environment and making their presence and work known. Maathai retired from the position in 1987.
In 1982, the Parliamentary seat representing her home region of Nyeri was open, and Maathai decided to campaign for the seat. As required by law, she resigned her position with the University of Nairobi to campaign for office. However, the courts decided that she was ineligible to run for office because she had not registered to vote in the last presidential election in 1979.
Du ring the 1997 elections Maathai was driven by the need to bring change in the country. In November, less than two months before the election, she decided that she would run for parliament and for president as a candidate of the Liberal Party.
Her intentions were widely questioned in the press; many believed she should simply stick to running the Green Belt Movement and stay out of politics. Maathai garnered few votes and lost the election.
In 2002 Maathai again campaigned for parliament as a candidate of the NARC . On 27 December 2002, Maathai won with an overwhelming 98% of the vote.In January 2003, she was appointed Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources and served in that capacity until November 2005.
Since then Maathai has been has been making international headlines especially after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 20004 for her work in the environment. She speared headed the reclamation of Congo forest even as our own Mau Forest was being razed down.
And last week an article appearing on The Star said she had been admitted at Nairobi Hospital. None at the time took it so seriously but today we mourn a woman who has been celebrated world over for her great achievements.
But at home she had given up hope of taking Kenya to the same international fora her work had propelled her to. Were it not for Wangari today we will not have the freedom square at Uhuru Park. She fought Moi’s plan to build a 60 story building there.