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  • Tribute to the late Prof. Wangari Maathai 06/10/2011

    Tribute to Prof. Wangari Maathai at a screening of the film “Taking Root”, organized by UNRIC in partnership with the Kenya Embassy in Brussels , the Goethe Institute and the Millenium Film Festival, on 5 October 2011.


    The citation for the Nobel Peace Prize for Prof. Wangari Maathai read in part as follows:

    “Peace depends on our ability to secure our living environment. Maathai stands at the forefront of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular. She thinks globally and acts locally”.

    The citation ended by stating that “Wangari represents an example and a source of inspiration for everyone in Africa fighting for sustainable development, democracy and peace”. For those reasons amongst others contained in the citation, Professor Wangari Maathai became the first woman from Africa to be honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize.

    In her acceptance speech, Prof. Maathai said that

    “ …many local and international wars, like those in Central Africa and the Middle East, continue to be fought over resources. In the process, human rights, democracy and democratic space are denied.

    I believe the Nobel Committee recognized the link between the environment, democracy and peace and sought to bring them to world wide attention with the Peace Prize that I am accepting today. The Committee, I believe, is seeking to encourage community efforts to restore the earth at a time when we face the ecological crises of deforestation, desertification, water scarcity and lack of a biological diversity”.

    Born on 1 April 1940 in a village in Kenya, Wangari would pursue her education relentlessly and in very difficult circumstances to become the first woman in the whole of the East African region to hold a PhD in 1971. She thereafter taught at the University of Nairobi, rising to become the chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976. In 1977, she became an Associate Professor. In both instances, she was the first woman at the University of Nairobi to attain those positions.

    What was to change Wangari’s life was not to be her academic excellence; it was the founding of the Green Belt Movement, a movement she designed for the empowerment of women to play a more active role in environmental conservation in general and in planting trees in particular. This movement would grow very rapidly and over and above tree planting, it became a very major player in the politics of the day in Kenya and played a major role in the journey towards the democratization of our country.

    The film you are now going to watch is not one for enjoyment. It is one that describes suffering and desperation, perseverance and sheer bravery. Through this film, you will see the capacity of an individual to make change. You will see that each one of us, just like Wangari and all those other women in the film, has the capacity for creativity and for change. Above all else, this film depicts hope. From the work and vision of only one woman, substantial change and achievement has occurred in the minds of millions of people, both men and women in Kenya and beyond. This is witnessed in no small measure by the presence of all of you here this evening to watch and follow but just a small part in the work of an awesome woman, a great human being.

    Professor Maathai believed in herself, in the strength of her body and mind. She believed in her fellow human being, the next Kenyan, and knew that together, they are capable of realizing their individual and collective dreams. She believed in her country and worked tirelessly towards making it a better place if it meant this could only be achieved at her own expense. She believed in the world we live in, but also knew that we could not go on living on it with a business-as-usual attitude, because if we did, we could only get results as usual, and that this would only lead to our demise.

    I will end with the words of Frances Moore Lappe, writing about Prof. Maathai on 13 December 2004.

    “Those lauding her unwavering resolve, stunning accomplishments, and her infectious warmth fail to mention a key piece of her genius. Wangari the environmentalist, they call her; Wangari the human rights and womens’ rights and pro-democracy activist. All are accurate. But the reason she is effective, I believe, is that she understands the battle is not about rights, as such, or the environment as such. She understands the real battle is inside: “ordinary people” making that internal shift – terrifying as it is – to realize the power that is ours. (If we can make that internal shift), shedding our own feelings of powerlessness, we can, like the courageous women of the Green Belt Movement assume our responsibility for solutions. This is the best conceivable tribute to the new Nobel Peace Laureate”.

    These words are, in my view, as true this evening as they were when written in December 2004. As we remember Professor Wangari Maathai, let us internalize and try to emulate – if only in part, what she believed in, what she stood for.

    Professor Wangari Maathai always said that she would not be buried in a wooden coffin as this would mean another tree felled. She directed in her will that she be cremated. Her remains will be cremated on Saturday 8 October 2011.

    I thank you all.

    Amb. Kembi-Gitura
    , 5 October 2011