It’s 1997. A girl lies curled up on the sofa watching the flickering images on the TV, perhaps a little passed her bedtime. They’re showing the presidential candidates, one of whom is a woman. She’s not that interested – they all look the same to her after a while. Moi’s going to come in anyway – whatever that means. Yawning, she’s told off for being awake at this hour when there’s school the next day. She exits, the TV still flickering in the background.
Two years later, and it’s the same house. The girl is called by her father to spend some time with him. The News is on. They sit in front of the TV while playing chess. While waiting for her turn, she hears of a public forest being given away to private landowners. This concerns her – she loves the ‘wild’ forests of Kenya, the natural landscapes, the hidden beauty that lies within them. Like the symbiotic relationship between safari ants and whistling thorn trees. But protesters have been hounded – beaten by the men who stood in their way of planting a tree. That woman who ran for presidency is on, and she’s angry. They’ve hurt her.
Years pass, and that little memory of the Presidential candidate are forgotten under piles of homework, moving to Australia and then to study in the UK, war on Iraq, oppression of Aboriginal Peoples in Australia, etc… But it’s 2004 and Wangari Maathai, from Kenya, has just become the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Curiosity gets the best of her, and the girl looks up who she is on the internet. Wangari Maathai was the presidential candidate for the Liberal Party in 1997. She initiated the Karura forests protection movement in 1999. She created and ran under the Green Party banner in 2003. She is one word: awesome.
In 2006, Unbowed comes out, and the girl can’t stop reading. She’s amazed at how much a woman can go through and still carry on fighting. She realises that her activism barely comes close to that of Maathai. Here was a woman who was genuinely forced to see the demise of the postcolonial dream. Here was a woman who literally was forced to play in a man’s world, and instead of becoming like them, she brought in more women through planting trees. Here was a woman who connected feminism, environmental politics and human rights and used a grassroots tree-planting movement to challenge all of them. And despite all adversity – brutal oppression, a failed marriage, and three children she was forced to leave in her ex-husband’s care – she carried on battling for a fairer postcolonial Kenya.
That girl saw a hero in Maathai, a hero that showed that only through solidarity could the battle against climate change, globalisation and social inequality be won. That just by working together on planting indigenous trees, women could change their circumstances, and radically challenge political repression. That it matters to never give up, even if everything seems to failing. Small changes are the bricks and mortar of the greater structural revolution.
Today, all the girl has to say is ‘Thank you. Thank you for just being you and never giving up.’
Rest in Peace, Wangari Maathai. You will be missed.