Wangari Maathai – an inspiration

“We have a special responsibility to the ecosystem of this planet. In making sure that other species survive we will be ensuring the survival of our own.” Wangari Maathai

Our beloved sister Wangari Maathai, whose last journey I am observing in Nairobi as I write this, is making her last journey from the St Luke’s funeral home via Uhuru Park (which she saved from Moi’s clutches – he wanted to build a vast 62 storey office and retail complex on the park adorned by a large statue of Moi) to Karioko crematorium, carried in her coffin of bamboo and water hyacinth.

She was an amazing woman, who I had the privilege to meet several times in London and Kenya, where she invited me to her home and we planted trees with local women. As I said in the UK Food Group conference, she was a tower of strength, the only person to successfully challenge Moi who lived in fear of her. She saved forests, campaigned for poor women, political prisoners and activists in Kenya. She campaigned ardently against extra judicial killings by agents of the State.

Her work transformed the environmental movement not just in Kenya but globally. In 1984 she received the Right Livelihood Award (most recently given to our ally GRAIN and from then on honours were piled on her including the Nobel Peace prize – the first for an African woman and the first for an environmentalist.

The Kenya staff, and especially country director, Grace Mukasa, told me that they see the work of the Green Belt Movement as exemplary of the style of campaigns in broad alliances that we should also be engaged in.

The State Funeral was hugely hypocritical with, mercifully short, speeches by representatives of the same institutions that spurned, beat, bullied and imprisoned her; the President recognised her achievements but made no commitments to continue her work.

The only touching moment was when her little granddaughter helped plant a tree in her memory.

The struggle continues, as many commentators have been saying – each person committing to plant trees, one for every year of her 71 years of life – and defending the interests, livelihoods and commons of the people, especially women.

Wangari Maathai was an inspiration to many of us who work at Practical Action and we should all do our utmost to take forward her great work.

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