Tuesday, 17 December 2013


Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, review essay, Wangari Maathai, Unbowed: One Woman’s Story (London: Arrow Books, 2008), 314pp.
It is unmistakeably evident in the early chapters of this remarkable autobiography by Wangari Maathai, especially those that cover her childhood to adolescence growing up in rural Kenya of the 1940s, how very little appears to exist on the ground to prepare her for the enormous challenges she confronts and overcomes, spectacularly, just a few years subsequently. Right from the outset, Maathai is indeed the daughter-of-the-soil and she retains this prestigious accolade throughout her most fulfilling life. As she works full time with her mother on the farm, having been allocated a 15-sq.ft. plot to tend herself at the age of 7 cultivating “sweet potatoes, beans maize, and millet” (Wangari Maathai, 2008: 38), there is no certitude to Maathai’s formal education in a school eventually. But the following year, aged 8, an unexpected conversation between her mother and Maathai’s older brother on one late evening after another hardworking day on the farm, would change the direction of young Wangari’s life! Maathai learns, with staggering incredulity, of her parents and brother’s decision to send her to school:
[A]lthough [my mother] had almost no formal education, she agreed with my brother. How grateful I am that she made the decision she did because I could not have made it for myself, and it changed my life… To this day I do not know where the money for my education came from, but my mother probably raised it by working for people in the village, cultivating their land. At that time you could earn up to sixty cents doing such work. (Maathai: 40)
 Contours of conquest and occupation
But the deal for Maathai to go to school is not done, yet! Someone else’s approval must be sought, someone who is not even a member of her family! Just as the hundreds of thousands of Gĩkũyũ people’s families whose legendary fertile lands in the central and western Kenyan highlands have been seized by the British occupation regime and handed over to 40,000 European-descent immigrant-“settlers” (predominantly from Britain, Germany, South Africa, Australia and Canada) by the beginning of the 1950s (10), Maathai’s “displaced” family now lives on one such “settler” farm owned by a recent British arrival, D.N. Neylan. Maathai’s family’s official designation in their new abode, as the rest of these nascent landless Africans, is “tenant-at-will”, as distinguished writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Maathai’s compatriot and contemporary recalls his own family’s experience (Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, 2011: 46), or “squatter-on-the-farm” as Maathai prefers instead: “My father had no title to the land where he had established his household – he was effectively a squatter on the farm … [H]e could build housing for his family and cultivate crops on land Mr Neylan apportioned to him … [In return] the man, his wife, and children were all required to provide labor. They were really glorified slaves…” (Maathai: 14-15). So, given this evident use-of-labour status in the “squatters-on-the-farm” provision, Neylan pointedly asks Maathai’s father who would “pick his pyrethrum” on the farm (plant used as insecticide and picking it is a specialism reserved for African children!) if the young Wangari goes to school, to which her father replies: “Don’t worry, [Mr Neylan], there are still many children in my homestead” (Maathai: 29). Educating African children, Maathai recalls, gravely, “was not a priority for the settlers” (29).
Just as Ngũgĩ (Ekwe-Ekwe, 2011: 46-48), Maathai is a keen witness to the momentous clash of two fiercely contradictory streams of consciousness and movement in the Kenya of her childhood whose outcome would impact on her and others of her generation most profoundly subsequently. On the one hand, there is the juggernaut of an insistent, if not desperate occupation regime which wants to consolidate its stranglehold on strategic and wealthy Kenya, 50 years after the beginning of its conquest and despite the lessons of the recently concluded Second World War and the 1947 liberation of India, and the other hand is the challenge of the land and freedom-bound army of the Mau Mau resistance. The significance of this clash dawns on Maathai perhaps most acutely in her new school, a catholic school run by Italian nuns. She readily excels in all her lessons but is shocked to be confronted with a very important school rule, arguably the most important school rule, which bans the speaking or any other forms of communication in Gĩkũyũ as well as in other African languages throughout the school premises. The only language allowed in school is English. Any student who contravenes this law wears a button of shame known as the “monitor”:
 It was sometimes inscribed with phrases in English such as ‘I am stupid. I was caught speaking my mother tongue’. At the end of the day, whoever ended up with the button received a [physical] punishment, such as cutting grass, sweeping, or doing work in the garden. But the greater punishment was the embarrassment you felt because you had talked in your mother tongue. In retrospect, I can see that this introduced us to the world of undermining our self-confidence … trivialization of anything African and lays the foundation for a deeper sense of self-doubt… (59-60)
Maathai soon realises that that much-cherished anchor of family and Gĩkũyũ national life which has sustained her for ten years, this daughter-of-the-soil, is at best tenuous… It is now evident to her that for her family, living on Neylan’s farm in the wake of being thrown out of their land by the occupation, it is not only a material loss, important as this is, but, more tragically, the loss of culture or a people’s identity. Neylan’s question of who would “pick his pyrethrum” is not just the seemingly casual remark uttered by a British head of a “settler”-farm on whether or not an 8-year-old African child in Kenya should go to school but a metaphor that captures, quite graphically, the aftermath of the subjugation of a people. The impact of this history on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, for instance,  is that 50 years hence, he writes only in Gĩkũyũ as he makes his contribution to the literary, political and philosophical discourses of the peoples of the world (Ekwe-Ekwe, 2011: 49-50). As for Maathai, the impact of this history is that 50 years later, she takes an unbowed stand to defend Kenya’s environmental heritage.
In the mean time, the broader canvass of certain features of Maathai’s own family history begins to acquire some intelligibility, on further reflection by her, in the wake of her school’s encounter with the constrictive edict on African expressivity and being. A clear example is the story of uncle Thumbi, his father’s older brother who had been conscripted by the occupation regime to fight against the Italians and Germans in neighbouring Somalia and Tanganyika, respectively, during the 1914-1918 World War I. Thumbi never returns from the campaign (later confirmed dead by a fellow Gĩkũyũ comrade who survived and had seen Thumbi “fall” at the battlefield) and his name and memory never mentioned again within the family so as not to upset Maathai’s grandmother who still grieves for her son despite the passage of time. Most tellingly, though, the occupation regime never informs Maathai’s family of what happened to Thumbi. As would be the case of the 100,000 Gĩkũyũ conscripts who died during this campaign (27), the perverse, double-jeopardy fate of an already occupied African national forced by the occupier to fight in the latter’s subsequent wars of intra-imperialist rivalries and expropriations (Ekwe-Ekwe, 2011: 56-57), Maathai describes the death of Thumbi as “still an open wound [in my family]… I want to say to the British government, ‘My uncle went to war and never came back, and nobody ever bothered to come and tell my grandparents what had happened to their son’” (28).
Name, naming, names, presence
Yet if there is ever the singular site of a clearly discernible de-Africanisation programme that projects the searing, triumphal outcome of the pan-European conquest and occupation of Africa, the focus must be on that crucial subject of name and naming – precisely the reference to the individual an how he or she is identified by the rest of society: What is your name? In occupied Kenya, the African “loses” their surname or family name. They are “officially” identified by their forename(s). In Maathai’s example, before going to school, she is known, interchangeably, as Wangari Miriam or Mariam Wangari, both being her forenames! On arrival at school, following baptism as a catholic, Maathai becomes Mary Josephine Wangari or Mary Jo Wangari – again, all forenames and no surname. In a few years, in 1960, after wining a scholarship to study at university in the United States, she is called “Miss Wangari” by her professors and fellow students on campus because everyone assumes, of course, that “Wangari” is her second name/surname! Reacting to this development, with her infectious sense of humour, Maathai writes:
This began to seem absurd, since I knew the term ‘Miss’ meant the ‘unmarried daughter of …’ and I knew I was not the unmarried daughter of myself.  I decided to put this right and began writing my name as Mary Josephine Wangari Muta [father’s name!], so I’d be called Miss Muta. I then reversed my primary and personal names, becoming Wangari Mary Josephine Muta, and later dropped Mary Josephine because the name had become too long. When I returned to Kenya [1966], I was Wangari Muta. That was what I should always have been. (96)
Maathai is 20 when she finally reconnects with her family name – not within her country but in a foreign land! The legacy of the encompassing African World historical experience of the previous 400 years is not lost on Maathai as she sees a link between her, from east Africa, and African Americans in this country where she is studying for a bachelor’s degree: “The way surnames were forgotten in Kenya struck me as similar to how many African Americans in the times of [enslavement] and segregation were known only by their first names, yet had to address white people as Mr. or Miss, followed by their surnames” (96). On this overriding question of names and naming across the African World, Chinua Achebe has aptly observed and it is important to quote him at length:
[The European conquest of Africa] may indeed be a complex affair, but one thing is certain: You do not walk in, seize the land, the person, the history of another, and then sit back and compose hymns of praise in his honour. To do that would amount to calling yourself a bandit; and you won’t to do that. So what do you do? You construct very elaborate excuses for your action. You say, for instance, that the man in question is worthless and quite unfit to manage himself or his affairs. If there are valuable things like gold and diamonds which you are carting away from his territory, you proceed to prove that he doesn’t own them in the right sense of the word – that he and they had just happened to be lying around the same place when you arrived. Finally if the worse comes to the worse, you may even be prepared to question whether such as he can be, like you, fully human. From denying the presence of a man standing there before you, you end up questioning his very humanity …[I]n the [European conquest] situation presence was the critical question, the crucial word. Its denial was the keynote of [this conquest’s] ideology. (Chinua Achebe, 1990: 4; emphasis added)
The lift!
The scholarship on which Maathai goes to the US to study at Mount St Scholastica College, Atchison, Kansas (now Benedictine College) is from the Joseph Kennedy Foundation. Three hundred Kenyans benefitted from this scholarship. The then young Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts was very interested and personally involved in the programme which included covering transport costs for these students to their various colleges of admission in the US and back home after completion of studies. One beneficiary from this scholarship that particularly needs noting is a certain Barack Obama, Snr, from the Luo nation of west Kenya and the father of the future 44th president of the US. Obama, Snr, goes to the University of Hawaii and later on to Harvard, and returns home to work as an economist. Following Maathai’s successful bachelor’s degree at Atchison, she studies and earns an MA in biology at the University of Pittsburgh before returning home. Besides enabling her resolve the legacy of historical identity denial, Maathai has fond memories of her six years living in the US: “…America transformed me. It made me into the person I am today. It taught me not to waste any opportunity to do what can be done – and there is a lot to do. The spirit of freedom and possibility that America nurtured in me made me want to foster the same in Kenya, and it was in this spirit that I returned home” (97).
She continues her study in Kenya, registering for a phd in the biological sciences at the University of Nairobi where she also teaches. She is awarded her doctorate degree in 1971 on completion of her research, making her the first woman in east and central Africa with such a qualification. Her main work subsequently is not focused on just teaching and researching in the academy but working outside – the daughter-of-the-soil returns, once again, to her roots, to protect the environment from the degradation of soil erosion and gullying, logging and unbridled deforestation, land-grab commercialisation to grow “cash-crops” tea and coffee, for instance, and ever-expanding desertification. The fate of that enduring fig tree that she had known, whilst growing up, appears to register the definitive spur for Maathai’s founding of the movement that would transform debates on the environment in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa: “I learned that someone had acquired the piece of land where the fig tree I was in awe as a child stood. The new owner perceived the tree to be a nuisance because it took up too much space and he felled it to make room to grow tea …[I]t did not surprise me that when  the fig tree was cut down, the stream where I played with tadpoles dried up. My children would never be able to play with the frogs’ eggs as I had … or … enjoy the cool, clear water of that stream. I mourned the loss of that tree” (122).
In 1977, Maathai begins to organise women to plant trees and her influential Green Belt Movement is born and soon spreads across the country, urban and rural, involving family and neighbourhood organisations, schools, churches, trades’ bodies and the like. Under the slogan, “One person, one tree”, the goal is to plant a tree in the country for every person in Kenya’s population of 15 million at the time. Soon, the country’s forestry commission is running short of seedlings, such is the demand to plant trees everywhere! After a decade’s work, an assessment of progress so far is hugely impressive: “several million trees” have been planted with the projection that by the year 2000, the movement would be able to plant 30 million trees, twice the target at initiation (175); about 200 women-groups are now working full time in the project – from nurturing nurseries to tending planted trees; more than a 1000 green belts are being overseen by schools and students; the movement is now spreading to other parts of Africa especially Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Rwanda with study groups from these countries visiting Kenya  regularly for exchange of  ideas and  solidarity (177); consequently, the Pan-African Green Belt Network emerges after workshops in Kenya involving 45 representatives from 15 African countries (177).
But these successes have had huge costs on Maathai. She is subjected to a series of harassments, intimidations, arbitrary arrests and detentions by the police and other state armed agencies and even imprisonment, on a number of occasions, by the increasingly authoritarian state led by Daniel arap Moi which views her work on the environment as essentially “political”! Maathai has undoubtedly expanded the parameters of her work to incorporate organised protests against unlawful detentions and gaoling of citizens, support for freedom of speech and association, students’ and workers’ rights, and anti-corruption campaigns against public officials including those in such sensitive sectors that affect people’s everyday life such as the judiciary and law enforcement bureaus. The Maathai-led October 1989-January 1990 mass opposition to the Moi regime’s attempt to build a 60-storey tower office and a shopping complex fronted by an imposing stature of the tyrant in Uhuru Park, Nairobi’s equivalent of London’s Hyde Park or New York’s Central Park, is unquestionably the landmark, epic struggle of her illustrious career and her success in forcing the regime to abandon this project, utterly humiliated, marks the beginning of the end of that dictatorship.
To be
On a personal level, though, the strain of such high-profile and very busy work schedule begins to affect family life, and, in Maathai’s case, results in the breakdown of her marriage to an influential Kenyan politician and entrepreneur. The divorce proceedings are very bitter and play out in public with the husband, Mwangi Mathai, insisting that Maathai drop her married name (i.e., the man’s surname, “Mathai”!) as part of the “final settlement” of the marriage’s dissolution. Ironically, Maathai had felt even before marriage in 1969, three years after returning from the US, that she would rather retain her name, Wangari Muta, in keeping to her historic resolution of the name-question earlier on in the decade. She didn’t want to be a Mrs Wangari Mathai! Besides, the “Mrs” is a title introduced to the country by the British as women in pre-conquest Gĩkũyũ and other African nations kept their names after marriage. Maathai only relented then on taking on the “Mrs” and becoming Wangari Mathai because the subject was creating some strain early on her marriage. Now, eight years later, she is challenged in court by her estranged husband to drop the name that she had not sought for in the first place. So nearly 20 years since Mount St Scholastica College, Atchison, Maathai faces yet another crisis on name and naming. True to type, she responds intelligently and resolutely:   
I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m not an object the name of which can change with every new owner!’ And I had resisted adopting his name in the first place! As a way to deal with my terrible feelings of rejection, I got the idea of adding another ‘a’ to ‘Mathai’ and to write it as it is pronounced in [Gĩkũyũ]. And so I became ‘Maathai’. The extra syllable also signified that although a part of me would always be connected to Mwangi and his surname, I had a new identity. Henceforth, only I would define who I was: Wangari Muta Maathai. (147)
 On 8 October 2004, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announces that the 2004 Nobel Prize has been awarded to Wangari Muta Maathai for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”.  As Maathai receives this news of her outstanding accomplishment, the daughter-of-the-soil turns and faces Mt Kenya: “the source of inspiration for me throughout my life, as well as for generations of people before me” (293).
Sadly, on 25 September 2011, the news is flashed across the world that Wangari Muta Maathai has died unexpectedly in Nairobi after a brief illness. She was 71. She receives a heroine’s funeral by both the Kenyan state and society. According to the latest, 2013 figures from the Green Belt Movement, 51 million trees have been planted in Kenya since the 1977 founding of the organisation. This is well over three times the number of trees envisaged by Maathai’s original conception.
Achebe, Chinua. “African Literature as Restoration of Celebration”, Kunapipi, 1990, 12, 2, 1-10.
Ekwe Ekwe, Herbert. Readings from Reading: Essays on African Politics, Genocide, Literature. Dakar and Reading: African Renaissance, 2011.
Maathai, Wangari, Unbowed: One Woman’s Story. London: Arrow Books, 2008.

Twitter @HerbertEkweEkwe

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