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Opinions Wed, 28 Sep 2011

Let Us Celebrate Wangari

for Her Great Impact on the Landscapes of Humanity

Written by Prosper Yao Tsikata

When the Jamaican reggae maestro, Jimmy Cliff sung “Many Rivers to Cross ” in far-flung Jamaica in 1972, the philosophical thread was certainly universal binding all struggling people who may or may not have envisioned the connection. But pores over the life story of the Noble Peace Laureate, Wangari Maathai , in her memoir: “Unbowed ,” there is no doubt that she has wandered across many rivers—the pain, the frustration, the persecution and the humiliations finally gave way to the authentic and infectious smile on the back page of her book.

Setting out early in her agrarian community, Wangari illustrates the socio-economic, political, cultural, and religious life of her society. On the religious and cultural front, the anthropomorphic and the extended kinship beliefs and ties are brought home to the reader, all within the wider socio-economic and political context of colonial rule. There is, then, a clear delineation of society in a stratified hierarchy, with not just men, but the colonists at the top of the hierarchy and followed by the individuals of mixed race, and then finally the native at the bottom of this strata. This placed women in an unequal footing with men, with female “highbrowism” and extraordinary capabilities considered as explicit disregard for the strictures that uphold male hegemony. This and other prejudices were the targets of Wangari’s lifelong crusade.

Her beginnings resonate with World War II and the postwar disorders that characterized scores of colonized societies on the African continent, especially south of the Sahara. Her memoir exposes the reader to the fundamental reasons for resistance that permeates the colonial struggle in many African countries—land, freedom, and self-governance; the main issues or “Maunu ni mau” for Kenyans.

Hers was not a planned life beyond the quest for academic pursuit; she only kept going and making the best of every situation and becoming everything—an academic, political activist and an environmentalist, among others.

But it is undisputable that education played a pivotal role in making her meet the situations that confronted her without crashing her willpower. It is important to note that the tremendous transformations which were taking place globally in her time—the civil rights movement in the United States, the feminist awakening, decolonization, and efforts to draw attention to environmental degradation, among others—coupled with her exposure through education in the United States prepared her for the task ahead.

The question of labeling of individuals, groups and organization comes to the fore when the colonist labeled the Mau Mau as a terrorist group. Parallels abound; for example, when the ANC in South Africa was declared by the apartheid state as a terrorist group, and its leader, Nelson Mandela placed on a terrorist list even in the US and elsewhere until recently. Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Afghanistan are some of the places where the labels are still controversial.

Her religious experience with the nation of Islam while in the United States as a student depicts the controversial nature of religion. But it is suggestive that liberal cultures tend to adopt more liberal attitudes towards religion, and vice-versa.

Other important themes that run through her memoir which connect with the rest of the continent are the issues of ethnocentrism, favoritism, cronyism and political patronage. Indeed, in hindsight, her memoir could be regarded as a well-timed precursor or wake-up call to Kenya which was ignored, and the corollary was the ethnic postelection violence in December 2007. Kenya is not alone. We have seen how the issue of ethnocentrism has frustrated the dreams of many newly independent African states, for example, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and an avalanche of others. Blatant disregard for the electoral process and the usurping of the electoral will of the people is becoming a patent occurrence. The introduction of queue voting in Kenya in 1992 whereby voters lined up behind their candidate, and election officials announced the winner, demonstrates how far an incumbent government could go to retain power.

From the prison accounts of some of her contemporary political activists like Kofi Awoonor (Ghana) and Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), one gets a clear portrait of how prison and incarceration on the continent have been turned into political tools to dehumanize and break the spirit of political opponents. Even private initiatives must be frustrated and you must lose it all, once you voice dissent or dare challenge “the powers that be.” It is simply unthinkable to demand justice from the state. The powers of the state are so entrenched in individual presidents to the extent that, not the laws of the state, the powers of the individual determines the course of action. It reflects the paradox of human existence in the fact that politicians who once opposed the draconian colonial laws upheld the same laws used them against their opponents, instead of reforming them. This has made the struggle for reforms in some African countries more dangerous than the independence struggle.

Many African countries have failed to reform their police forces bequeathed to them by the colonial powers. They have been turned into brutalizing forces on the continent and used to repress dissent in even the most democratic country on the continent.

Her triumphs, for example, preventing the government from selling Karura Forest, frustrating plans to build the Times Complex in Uhuru Park, fighting for the release of political prisoners, making multiparty democracy a reality in Kenya, crossing the political threshold into parliament, and becoming an assistant minister of environment, among others, are all victories for not only the people of Kenya but humanity at large. They dwarf the failures of Envirocare, the disruption of her academic life by events beyond her control, and paramount, the failure of her marriage, which in African societies is more important to a woman than anything else in this world.

Finally humanity acknowledged her contribution with an honor unparalleled in the history of gender activism on the African continent, if not the world—a Noble Peace Prize for her lifelong fight for freedom, justice, equity, the protection of the environment, etc. It is a long walk to freedom and never an easy one to paradise. She has been able to deconstruct and reconstructed the concept of gender in Africa, showing that what men can do, maybe women can do it and so it better.

The true measure of a man is not his/her standing in the present; we must consider his/her actions in their totality, especially from the depths from which he/she has risen to appreciate his/her worth.

In the Unbowed” Wangari provides a wide range of political lessons for social and political activism, especially for young activists in undemocratic, pseudo-democratic, and other repressive societies or regimes.

PS: I revisit this review in honor of the fallen Wangari. May her soul find peace with the Lord in Eternity.

Columnist: Tsikata, Prosper Yao