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Is any leader serious about honouring Wangari Maathai?

Oct 09, 2011 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Wangari Maathai deservedly got a state funeral, the first ever for a woman in these parts. She warranted it, for rarely has a Kenyan received such global acclaim. But here’s the thing: once the funeral is over, and we have stopped shedding the requisite tears, how are we going to honour her memory?

The fact is, we Peculiar Kenyans have the attention span of butterflies on steroids. We experience heightened emotional peaks after every tragedy and every loss and every disaster – and then promptly go back to business-as-awfully-usual within minutes.

If anyone is interested in honouring Wangari, I suggest that we must honour her most important legacy: her love of trees.

Here’s the irony: while we mourn the passing of our great icon, we are simultaneously busy chopping down vast tracts of trees in Nairobi, in the name of ‘progress’. We must have new roads, you see, and new buildings, and footpaths, and…

Certainly we must. But who has ever told you that the trees must go in order to gain progress? Only the rapacious developers and the inept civil servants who fail to regulate them.

During a recent visit to Singapore, my first surprise was walking out of the airport terminal and seeing before me a car park. An open-air car park, shaded by lovely old trees. And my first drive through this prosperous city-state confirmed what I had least expected: Singapore is green all over, and fully deserves its tag of “garden city.”

Is Singapore underdeveloped? No, it’s one of the world’s top 10 richest countries in terms of income per capita. Has Singapore sacrificed its trees in its breathtaking drive for progress? Not a bit of it: it has in fact become more and more protective of its green heritage the more built-up it becomes. Trees are protected by law, ruthlessly, in typical Singaporean fashion. Even huge flyovers have vines and creepers hanging off them – they are a requirement.

Contrast that with our approach, which is: “Just chop ’em down, think later.” That kind of laxity when it comes to trees is unforgivable. If you still don’t know this, trees are the lungs of the planet. They cleanse the pollution we exude, and bring the rain we so desperately need. To bring them down willy-nilly in the name of progress is to be acutely short-sighted. Many a civilization has exploited its environment to the point of collapse. Must we join the pantheon?

It is eminently possible to build without decimating the foliage of a city. All that is needed is a little imagination. A walk down the main streets of many a mature metropolis should convince you that trees can thrive in heavily built-up areas. And that trees are the jewels of a great city, lending it splendour and dignity.

Such was the heritage of Nairobi, whose forebears had the wisdom to plant acres of trees everywhere. Now, we seem to be hell-bent to become as denuded as Lagos. All because no one in charge is enforcing the protection of trees; nor is anyone insisting that Nairobi must have a certain amount of tree cover – if trees are brought down, other trees must be planted and maintained to maturity.

Is that really so difficult to pull off, leaders? If it is, then I suggest you had no place at the funeral of Wangari Maathai, and you should have had the decency to stay away. That lady had the gumption to protect trees with her own body. She had the courage to take on an awful regime that was intent on ruining both Uhuru Park and Karura Forest in the name of political patronage. The next time you pass by those two landmarks, stop to reflect for a moment. They only remain in existence because of Wangari.

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