(Born 1 April 1940, Ihithe, Kenya)
BIOLOGIST and iconic exponent of freedom and the environmentIN THE following review essay first published on 17 December 2013 and entitled “Daughter-of-the-soil”, Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe reflects on Professor Maathai’s autobiography, 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)
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).
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)
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
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
, I was Wangari Muta. That was what I should always have been. (96) Kenya
[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 scholarship on which Maathai goes to the
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.
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
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)
(Alice Coltrane Sextet, “Journey in Satchidananda” [personnel: Coltrane, harp; Pharoah Sanders, soprano saxophone, bells; Cecil McBee, bass; Tulsi, tambura; Majid Shabazz, tambourine, bells; Rashied Ali, drums; recorded: Coltrane home studios, Dix Hills, New York, US, 8 November 1970])
Achebe, Chinua. “African Literature as Restoration of Celebration”. Kunapipi, 1990, 12, 2, 1-10.
Ekwe Ekwe, Herbert.
Maathai, Wangari, Unbowed: One Woman’s Story.