Wangari Maathai was always there with us in our house in Kenya when I was growing up. She was there on our television screens, in the morning news on the radio before we went to school and in animated yet hushed conversations about her courage between my parents and their visitors in our living room during the troubled mid-90s. The strong dark woman in African prints and braided hair speaking truth to power when no one dared question the then dictator President Daniel Arap Moi.
She was there even after Moi called her the crazy woman with insects in her head and sycophants in parliament chorused calling her a badly behaved woman and a divorcee who was a threat to Kenya’s national security.
She was there in press interviews and run-ins with the Moi governments hired goons after graciously kneeling to plant a tree.
She was there, at home with grandmothers in villages urging them to plant more trees, as she was dining with world leaders in exclusive locations explaining complex concepts of why they urgently need to address climate change.
The grey Monday morning she left us on September 25, 2011 signified the mood that enveloped me and indeed Kenya and the world as we came to terms with the loss of yet another great non-conformist. Her courage to turn her back on old formulas while inventing the future had left an indelible mark in Kenya and the world we live in. Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary President of Burkina Faso once said that,
“You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. […] We must dare to invent the future.”
Wangari was labelled a mad woman but because of her madness she reinvented our collective future albeit in her small way.
In her memoir Unbowed, she reveals the difficult choices she made in her personal life in a conservative Kenya after she went through a painful divorce where she was labelled by her ex-husband as a ‘too strong-minded a woman who was not easy to control’. By Wangari’s refusing to conform as a ‘well-behaved woman’ in her private space she made history and expanded the public space for women at a national and international level in various spaces such as the private space, the academy, in politics and most importantly the ecological space which she was later feted for as a Nobel Laurent. As a feminist, she exemplified the personal is political mantra from her days in the National Council of Women of Kenya, as a founder of the Green Belt Movement when she publicly initiated a campaign that supported another trail blazing Kenyan woman Wambui Otieno whose legendary case to bury her husband SM. Otieno advanced women’s rights. Many ‘well behaved women’ who were beneficiaries of the patrimonial politics of Moi’s leadership refused to support Wangari as she fought for the rights of another ‘crazy’ woman( Wambui Otieno who fought for widows rights to bury their husbands) and for a younger generation of Kenyan women who now enjoy these rights.
These instances of madness and non-conformity have led to several legacies she left us on environment, women’s emancipation and politics. On the environment, her madness finally bore fruit when she recovered and secured our public spaces such as Uhuru park, Karura forest and more recently our water towers: the Aberdare and the Mau complex from land grabbers and corrupt politicians. Internationally, as the co-chair of the Congo-Basin fund she tirelessly campaigned to save the African water tower.
In conclusion, the most notable constant that enabled Wangari to soldier on despite adversity and insulting labels such as ‘mad woman’ is her love for the environment.
“A true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” Che Guevara.
We miss you Wangari.