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In Memory of Wangari Maathai

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The recent passing of Nobel Prize winner and Kenyan-born environmentalist Wangari Maathai has KUNC commentator Pius Kamau reflecting on a life spent merging environmental activism with women’ s rights.

When Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 few of us knew of her true heroism and the distance she’d travelled. Sometimes heroism involves acts of desperation when nothing else seems to work. After untold brutality by Kenyan President Moi’s Police, Maathai and her group of grandmothers decided to bare it all in 1992.

For the Kikuyu tribe respect for the elderly is paramount and the thought that a grandmother would bare her body in public mortifying. Maathai and her group were protecting Uhuru Park, a unique tree park in Nairobi from destruction confronted by armed soldiers. She decided to do the undone. But unlike Betty Friedan’s feminists who burned their bras with raucous laughter as part of America’s women’s movement, Nairobi’s females were in clear danger of being murdered as they decided on naked civil disobedience. Fortunately it was an act so confounding to the gun-toting young men that they turned around and beat a quick retreat.

But her efforts were of no surprise to those of us who knew her. Long before her Nobel Prize Maathai was a Kikuyu woman who defied tribal edicts where women were to be seen and not heard. Armed with a PhD from America, she was unbowed, and refused to be silenced – convinced that women had always held the tribe’s and the nation’s destiny together. She went on to work to preserve and improve the environment, determined to reverse the blind, destructive acts of systematic deforestation that President Arap Moi’s government had embarked on. Cutting down Kenya’s forests was easy, the populace was voiceless and for the government, Moi’s power limitless.

By embarking on a campaign to plant trees and replenish the forests, using womanpower and energy, Maathai was able to erode some of Moi’s clout. She was also able to weave together the politics of environmental improvement, women’s power and place in society, and the possibilities of a nascent democratic culture. Her work was perceived by a male dominated political structure as threatening. Kikuyu manhood couldn't tolerate her independence and she and her Green Belt movement were targeted for destruction. A resolve and determination of steel hid behind the most charming smile.

She was the first black woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because she had withstood the harsh merciless winds of an angry manhood. And politicians who believed their power was God given and a mere woman could never stand in their way. She showed them that beliefs were more strongly anchored than their hatred.  Even though her environmental advocacy was rooted in science it was also a service to the Kikuyu God – Ngai – who had bequeathed the forests destroyed by Moi to the Kikuyu and the people of the world. She was Ngai’s and humanity’s servant.

On her passing, a shiver of sadness passed over us like a shadow; she is still with us only we can’t touch her. She hears us, only we can’t talk to her. We are sad but not broken. We know she waits for us across the shallow bridge to the other world. The work of her hands is everywhere for us to see; the shade of the trees she planted all across Kenya’s arid areas there for children to rest under at high noon.

Born in Kenya and trained in Spain, Pius Kamau has been in surgical practice in the Denver area for three decades. He was a columnist for The Rocky Mountain News and has written for The Denver Post. Kamau’s commentaries have also been featured on NPR, in the Huffington Post and other national magazines and newspapers. He’s also contributed to several books and recently finished his memoir.
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