Amplifying Wangari Maathai’s Voice for a Better Africa

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I last met Wangari Maathai on the evening of July 26 2010 during the screening of her autobiographical movie, ‘Taking Root, the Vision of Wangari Maathai.’ The screening was at the Alliance Francaise auditorium.

We watched as the film vindicated Martin Luther King Jnr’s words that ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ As one of the pioneers of the environmental movement not just in Kenya but indeed globally, she achieved environmental justice and in the process social justice. The film laid out this case vividly and convincingly.

The film starts with a serene establishing shot of Mt. Kenya as Wangari Maathai is heard saying that, ‘for generations, that mountain was the inspiration of our people. Everything good came out of the mountain. The rains, the clouds, the fog.’

The images shift to a massive tree followed by a clear stream as Wangari Maathai’s voice-over continues, ‘I grew up in the countryside and as a small young girl, there was a huge tree that was near our homestead, and next to our tree was a stream. My mother told me, do not collect firewood from the fig tree by the stream.’

Her familiar face finally comes on the screen as she continues, ‘I said why? And she said because that tree is the tree of God.’

The film ends with images of villagers hoisting tree seedlings; fully grown indigenous trees with a mountain in the background Wangari’s voice-over during her epic acceptance speech when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, ‘the challenge as I stand here today, is to restore this home for the tadpoles and give back to the children a world of beauty and wonder.’ 

I was the moderator of the post-movie discussion so as soon as the screening ended, I went forward and ushered Wangari Maathai to the stage. She shook my hand and said in her gentle but firm manner, ‘people must not forget where we came from.’

Indeed, when we forget where we came from, we take for granted where we are and lower the bar of where we can be.

For almost an hour, I sat proudly next to her and watched as she engaged both the audience and panelists with her trademark vigor. It was such a refreshing and reinvigorating experience as we collectively walked down memory lane and dissected what that great daughter of Africa had been through.

Although her life is over, her dream of sustainability lives on. Hers was a life that changed democratic space in Kenya and entrenched environmental sustainability into the very heart of global discourse and action.

She achieved so many ground-breaking things during the 71 years of her life. She was the first woman to earn a PHD in East and Central Africa. She started the Green Belt Movement and spoke out about the central role of environment in the society when barely anyone in the world was doing so. But even back then in the seventies, she understood that you cannot separate the earth that we depend on from the world that we live in. Hence she championed both environmental and democratic initiatives.

In 2004, the world at last caught up with her when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Finally, the world formally acknowledged what she had known all along – that the earth and the world are intertwined. That environmental sustainability must walk hand in hand with social and economic progress. That the environment is a key pillar of peace.

At 10PM on September 25th, Wangari Maathai’s green and life-changing journey came to an end. The world is a better place because of this journey. We must follow her footsteps and practice what we preach. Our own lives must continue changing our world not just through talk, but through action.

And we must also become lions so that we can elect leaders who are lions like her. Although she is the first female president that Kenya never had, she should be an inspiration to the first female president that Kenya will have. She should inspire you to make your own history in your life. You can do that by making every day an opportunity to take a few more steps towards your dream destination. Remember, your dreams are not in some far-off place in the future, they are right there in your heart and mind, just waiting for you to realize them, one step at a time, one day at a time.

This article is an excerpt from my upcoming book, 'Vote of Confidence'

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