Lest we forget: Lessons from Wangari Maathai on her 81st birthday

In Summary

•Lest We Forget: has Kenya achieved Wangari’s dream, as articulated by Article 69 (1) (b), of putting at least ten percent of the land area of Kenya under tree cover?

•Has Mau Forest been reclaimed?

A section of the Mau Forest
A section of the Mau Forest
Image: FILE

Happy Birthday Wangari Muta Maathai, 2004 Nobel Prize Winner! This April 1st you will be 81 years young.

“Lest We Forget” was the message on a signboard erected at Freedom Corner of Uhuru Park in Nairobi by the Greenbelt Movement (GBM) led by Professor Wangari Muta Maathai. It was meant to celebrate the hard-fought victory that the GBM and Wangari had eked out of the struggle to save Uhuru Park from the ravenous talons of the Moi-Kanu regime in the late 1980s when the latter had suggested to hive off some part of Uhuru Park to erect a 60-storey Kenya Times Media Trust building in their own honor. It was a victory in the battle against land-grabbing and for environmental protection and justice.

Lest We Forget: have we won this war or was this a pyric victory? Has, for instance, the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Irregular Allocation of Public Land (or more popularly, the Ndung’u Report) published in June 2004 been implemented? Has the opaque and almost-exclusionary control of public land been wrestled from the claws of the venal executive or tumbocrats, as envisioned by Chapter 5 of the 2010 Constitution (on Land and the Environment)?

Lest We Forget: has Kenya achieved Wangari’s dream, as articulated by Article 69 (1) (b), of putting at least ten percent of the land area of Kenya under tree cover? Has Mau Forest been reclaimed? Kakamega Forest? Karura Forest? Ngong Forest? Has the diversity that is Nairobi National Park been preserved and protected? Are Kenya’s water towers really safe and part of our assets to deploy against the rising tempest of climate change?

Has the State, as instructed by Article 69 (1) (a) of the Constitution ensured sustainable exploitation, utilization, management and conservation or the environment and natural resources and ensured the equitable sharing of the accruing benefits? How are we doing with regard to the right to a clean and healthy environment as required by Article 42 of Katiba (the Constitution) 2010? Has the Uhuruto government really transited from the mentality of its mentor and forebear, the utterly authoritarian Moi-Kanu regime, which accused Wangari of madness for planting trees in the heated dry weather of January with Moi once publicly berating her: “Huyu mama ni wazimu anapanda miti Januari!” (Isn’t this mama so crazy that plants trees in (the heat of) January).

“Lest We Forget” also signified and celebrated the victory of the women’s movement in organizing protest against the wanton and arbitrary exercise of power – again, by the tyrannical Moi-Kanu regime. Here, the mothers of political prisoners had camped at the Freedom Corner of Uhuru Park to protest the illegitimate arrest and incarceration of their sons by Moi-Kanu. Faced by police batons, dogs, tear gas and violence, they stripped! And for that, the State in the full glare of national and international press had to hang its despotic head in shame at the very public opprobrium that ensued.

Battle won, but was it not just another pyric victory? Today, for instance, Uhuruto (and their brother from March 2018, Raila Amolo Odinga aka Baba) have been unwilling to see to it that the two-thirds gender rule prescribed by Article 27 (8) of the Constitution is activated and implemented. Equally bad, our society is wallowing in a miasma of misogyny and bilious contempt for the female body – seen most recently when the morning show on Homeboyz Radio, in a crass attempt at light social commentary, blamed victims of gender-based violence for inviting it through their own conduct! It reminded one of a bizarre piece of jurisprudence from a European country some time back where the court had (very erroneously and misguidedly) stated that a woman wearing tight jeans was inviting her own rape! There is a YouTube video that analogizes consent with an offer to make someone tea. We should all watch it – consent to drink the tea is withdrawable even after the tea has been made and placed before its intended recepient. As one Chi Chi, beloved sister to fellow traveler Con Osendo Omore posted: “Men understand consent full well when they are approached by another man.” The Hansard record of the parliamentary debate that followed Njoki Ndung’u’s (now Supreme Court Judge) introduction of the Sexual Offences Bill in 2006 offers us lurid insights into just how deep-rooted this disturbing psychosis around women’s bodies is.

And as this vociferous cultural war breaks surface and erupts from its subterranean hideout, Lest We Forget, Wangari was actually a proud champion of the resilience and innate solidity of “culture as the foundation of the nation and as the cumulative civilization of the Kenyan people and nation” as now encapsulated by Article 11 of the Constitution.

Lest We Forget: “Gutiri wa Ituika Utuire”(All our revolutionaries are gone). This, Wangari pointed out to me in the presence of (now Nyeri Town MP) Ngunjiri Wambugu, in days when he and I would collaborate on social justice issues. The Ituika generation is generally those who are around 40 years old and is most visibly showcased by the generation that waged the Mau Mau war of Independence in Kenya commencing early 1950s. Will the current Ituika generation similarly rebel with non-violence from what Chief Justice Emeritus Willy Munywoki Mutunga calls baronial politics and chart a new course for national redemption, salvation and transformation?

Wangari would offer two ideas here, methinks. One, there is no one too small or too young to make a change. We all need to be like the Humming Bird in the story from the Quechan people that Wangari so eloquently popularized. Like the Humming Bird, we need to get on with it, by, like the Humming Bird, “doing the best I can.”

Second, Lest We Forget, Wangari postulated her vision in in her 2009 publication The Challenge for Africa: A New vision:

In trying to explain both my work and my philosophy…I was reminded of the traditional African stool, which is comprised of a seat and three legs. The first leg represents democratic space, where rights – whether human, women’s, children’s, or environmental – are respected. The second leg symbolizes the sustainable and accountable management of natural resources both for those living today and for those in the future, in a manner that is just and fair, including for people on the margins of society. The third leg stands for what I term “culture of peace.” These take the form of fairness, respect, compassion, forgiveness, recompense, and justice.”

Once again, Happy 81st Birthday Wangari Muta Maathai. You remain articulate, elegant and unbowed. For you I could light a candle every day. But I will instead simply plant a tree and be today’s Humming Bird.


Mugambi Kiai is the Regional Director, Article 19 Eastern Africa. The views expressed in this piece are entirely his own.