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What does Wangari’s prize really mean?

Oct 17, 2004 Leadership, Sunday Nation

When the news broke last week, Kenya experienced a collective swelling of the chest. The Nobel Peace Prize, no less! What an accolade, what recognition, what a tribute! What an honour for Kenya and Kenyans. It was almost as though the country had won the prize, not a woman called Professor Wangari Maathai.

As my friend Gado illustrated subsequently, it didn’t take long for Kenyans of all stripes to line up next to the professor to bask in her reflected glory. She will now undoubtedly spend a great deal of her time fending off all those who wish to be associated with her (or rather, with her fame). Not to mention all the hornets that will start buzzing around her hundred-million-bob honey pot.

I’m sorry, people, but that prize has nothing to do with you as Kenyans, and everything to do with Professor Wangari as an individual. Those who helped her win the prize can be counted on the fingers of her two busy hands; those who stood in the way could probably fill a 60-storey skyscraper.

That applies particularly to politicians. Those who questioned her sanity and called her names that are still unprintable. Those who hired goons to attack her and her allies when they stood defiantly in the face of overwhelming injustice. Those who asked what a mere woman (and divorced to boot) could do to resist the whims, fancies and appetites of a thoroughly nasty autocracy. Well, boys, she showed you what she could do. Have the shame to hide your miserable selves away in some corner of Karura now. Please don’t step forward to claim the prize on behalf of all Kenyans; she won the damn thing in spite of you, not because of you.

What is amazing is that some of the very politicians who wished her grievous bodily harm in the 1990s are still her colleagues in government today, and are barefacedly leading the kilo claps for the good lady. Clearly, shame is in very short supply in this country of ours; perhaps even scarcer than our dwindling indigenous forests. Of course, no one who’s anyone in the Narc government ever missed a good photo opportunity; this administration is the ultimate triumph of froth over feeling, so we can expect a few more photo calls yet. Good news is hard for the government to come by these days. One wishes, however, that those wishing to fete her would actually try to understand what the good professor stands for. Giving her bouquets of cut flowers and offering her a petrol-guzzling vehicle is, gentlemen, missing the point somewhat. As is suggesting that she, a Nobel laureate, is now “qualified” to join that gang of underachievers called the cabinet. Can you laugh louder than you can cry? You’ll need to.

But put the politicians to one side (a good rule to follow in life generally). What of you and of me, dear reader? Can we share in the lady’s fortune? Well, if you stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her in Uhuru Park and Karura, I guess you could stake a small claim. If you inhaled the tear gas and shed the blood she did, I suppose you deserve some acclamation yourself. If you wrote to support her, raised funds and awareness, spoke up for her wherever you went, or even just called her to offer moral backing and to keep her spirits high, you might just qualify to be counted.

The chances are, however, that you don’t qualify at all. The chances are that you merely watched the TV news in those fateful days and shook your head in mock dismay. The chances are that you would have stood by and let your Uhuru Park be taken over by scurrilous tycoons. The chances are that you would have snored loudly while she was saving your Karura Forest for you. There’s a small chance, in fact, that you may even have been part of those who wished her ill. Perhaps because you were going to supply materials for building the concrete monstrosity that would have replaced Uhuru Park. Perhaps because you were one of the ones who received parcels of our sacred forest, or who rushed forward to buy a plot at a nice price without a thought for the environment.

Fortunately for Kenya, she stood taller than you and me. She did what was necessary, on all our behalves. They abused her, assaulted her and questioned her professional credentials. She did not flinch. For that, she has received one of the world’s most valued accolades. That is as it should be.

There are important lessons to be learned here; and I fear that in all the flashing cameras and the calculations of what 1.37 million dollars can buy, we will fail to heed them. The first is that an individual can and does make a difference. Indeed, only individuals do. Our Wangari was not born as an army called Professor Maathai: she was simply one woman who showed us how to make an impact. So the next time we cower in the face of wrongdoing, let us remind ourselves of the power of one. Twelve ones make a dozen; a dozen dozens make a grouping; a hundred groupings make a movement; a movement changes the world.

Secondly, when one brave person does emerge to fight our battles for us, let us not hide under our beds for fear of personal repercussion. Tyrannies thrive on this: the loss of Uhuru Park would not have had a direct individual impact on you and me; it would have been a collective loss. Being arrested or beaten in a protest is, however, a personal matter. That is the arithmetic we all engage in; that is why the sums go against the collective good. It is because we all abandoned her that Professor Maathai had to take the support of the world’s media instead. Next time, let us all stand up and be counted.

A third lesson: will we now learn to recognise our own prophets? Did we need this award, funded by a long-dead philanthropist in Sweden, in order to become aware of greatness in our midst? Should this recognition not have happened at home first and in a faraway land later?

There is still much to be done. I fear our environment is in a worse state than when the professor began her crusade. That is our fault, not hers. The environment is not ruined by mysterious outsiders. It is we who chop down the trees for personal gain. It is we who pollute the rivers for convenience. It is we who throw our filth out into open space. It is we who treat the treasures of nature as something to urinate on rather than something to hold sacred. If we cannot change that outlook, a hundred thousand Wangaris can do nothing for us.

Here’s a wild thought: we could, each one of us, plant a single tree to commemorate the arrival of the Nobel Prize in Kenya. At thirty million trees, we might just match the record of one Wangari Maathai.

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