A TRIBUTE TO WANGARI MAATHAI
For as long as the majority of Kenyans alive today have been on planet earth, the name Wangari Maathai has been synonymous with the environment, trees to be precise. And yet it was not until 2004, when Prof. Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, that we finally began to appreciate this humble woman. As fate would have it, electricity was being rationed, and the little that did come through was billed at what we considered exorbitant rates. We were lacking, and paying handsomely for portions of, what should be a basic commodity in the twenty-first century: electricity. Of all the things that have been written and said about Prof. Wangari Maathai, the first and only Kenyan to ever receive a Nobel Prize, one sentence stands out in my mind to this day:
“NATURE IS UNFORGIVING,
WE SHALL PAY A VERY HIGH PRICE
FOR OUR MISTAKES.”
In 2004, I thought that day had surely come. Some very pertinent questions followed: Why had we not been weaned on the professor’s wisdom? Why had the state ridiculed and persecuted her? The award of the Nobel Peace Prize couldn’t have come at a better time. The forces of derision and oppression were stopped in their tracks. The whole world took to planting trees with religious zeal. The good professor has since been feted by the high and mighty on planet earth. She became a conservation icon, a permanent fixture in our minds, larger than life even to those who did not personally know her. Environmentally speaking, she had single-handedly succeeded in putting Kenya on the map, against great odds. We were proud to share a nationality with her. Too soon the sad news: the mightiest of all trees is fallen. Disbelief. Desolation. The earth heaves, gives way, as if there are no more trees to break the fall. Did someone eliminate her? After all, 2012 will be an election year, and we had entertained hopes of having her as our president.
The messages are calm, consistent, and very clear. Prof. Wangari Maathai is dead. She has succumbed to ovarian cancer. She will be accorded a state funeral. We calm down. We accept the inevitable. We locomote ourselves to various locations to sign the condolence books. We dust our outfits in readiness for the big day, determined to pay our last respects in the style befitting a Nobel laureate. Then comes the shocker: cremation! Pause. Indignation. Pause again. Realization! What had we expected? To use timber for a coffin? To set aside a six-by-six for a grave, and then fight over access rights? To fuel our guzzlers and choppers to the FUN- fun-eral? Naturally, at the expense of the state! Which state? The same state that refuses to hire enough teachers for public schools; Or to pay those hired enough to make it worth their while? The same state that uses the contingency fund to subsidize the obscene lifestyles of MPs; As millions starve within its borders? The same state that is unable to evict squatters from oil pipelines; Or control the activities of the pipeline company to reduce the risk of fire? The same state that is unable to guarantee security of person and property; Or indeed protect its territory from encroachment by neighbouring states? The same state … is there even a state? Well then, let the state, such as it may be, re-allocate that money. If even a fraction of it can be channelled to the education system to empower teachers and thereby produce more professors, it will have been a worthwhile contribution.
Thank you, Professor Wangari Maathai, for being a conservationist in death, even as you were in life. You have fought the good fight. You have finished the race. You have left indelible imprints in the sands of time. Fare thee well, rest in peace, dear mother professor. May the Lord accept your soul into his eternal presence. AMEN.
© Esther Mbithi, 2011