Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wangari Maathai.

One routine method of female 'empowerment' involves exposing impressionable young ladies to women who have achieved something admirable. This can be a bit of a hit-and-miss tactic: if the person in question is too awe-inspiring and unreachable, the young ladies might not internalize the idea that they too can be just like her. And if the person is unpalatable, she might just put them off forever. I can confess to a rather unfortunate experience of Vandana Shiva that killed my budding romance with ecofeminism right dead... and colored my perception of Dr. Maathai for the longest.

Until my twin bought me her memoir, in hardcover. No choice but to read it. Having read it, no choice but to admire her. Admiring her, no choice but to try and understand why she was exceptional, to me. And upon her death, no choice but to try and pay what homage I can to this woman.

Pacifism is a rather uncool political choice and becoming uncooler with every passing day. I admit that I struggle with it myself , when people quote Fanon at me as if an African woman needs anyone to tell her what disempowerment feels like. But here's the secret: on my bookshelf I keep Wangari on the same bookshelf as Franz. I like to think that they balance each other out, as it were, and she helps me contain his chaotic destructiveness. I also keep her there to remind me to recognize, respect and embrace "alternative" (read: proudly effeminate) practices of power in superb leaders of all genders:

"Dr. Maathai chose to champion the environment, or perhaps it was the environment that wisely selected Dr. Wangari Maathai to champion Her. Yet it is in the story of her very human life that her true achievements quietly shine. I can only hope that some of the newly enfranchised Saudi citizens think to pick up a copy of her memoir. It has more than one lesson for anyone intent on exploring some of the power that democratic mechanisms can offer to a woman facing the patriarchal state. It is certainly a good read for those interested in the slightly gritty workman details of how one might convert a burning passion into something bigger than themselves. Ultimately we could do with more leaders who take their cue from this fierce and accomplished Kenyan, more revolutionaries who make the commitment to build, nurture and create."

There are a number of conventions for eulogizing someone much admired, but the highest tributes have always, to me, stemmed from warm traditions that celebrate life. So borrowing from the fine custom of praise-song, in acknowledgement that it is not nearly good enough, I make my offering to the memory of Dr. Maathai: Wangari Maathai, The She-Elephant who led her Herd to Water, The Matriarch who was a Man amongst Men, The Fighter who never stayed down, The Commander who led from the front, The Nurturer who loved Life, The Faithful Daughter of Kenyan Soil, She of the Many Names, She is no more. Long live Wangari Maathai. Long live Wangari Maathai. Long live Wangari Maathai.


  1. She was phenomenal woman. Stood for principles, that is what I admired from her. They say on her will she didn't want to be buried by casket made of trees.

  2. Long live Wangari indeed. I had the honour of working with her in the mid 90s right after university as she was on the board of the organisation I worked for. We young women definitely gravitated towards this incredibly powerful, intelligent, yet humble and oh so warm woman. And guess who was also on the board? Yup, Vandana Shiva! and no, she was not warm and approachable like Wangari, but similarly phenomenal. Your comment had me thinking and wondering, but rather than make any assumptions, I'd love to know what rubbed you the wrong way about Vandana.
    and in addition to Wangari, we also lost another trailblazing phenomenal woman, Wambui Otieno Mbugua. The last two issues of pambazuka pay tribute to both ( and and raise critical and sometimes uncomfortable issues that force us as women to look critically at ourselves in the mirror. One key question for example is why mainstream women and feminist groups are happy to claim them now when they did the opposite at the times when both were most challenging gender dynamics and the patriarchy.

  3. Prof Wangari Maathai's life story was the inspiration for my blog on Kenyan Women Professors. Her vision, courage and principle-based leadership will always inspire me. May she rest in peace.


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