Popular Abroad, Kenyan Nobel Laureate Maathai Faces Challenges at Home

“Her preference to play politics that are nationalistic in nature is her undoing. She is ahead of her time. Currently, the politics that resonate with the general public here coalesces around parochial themes and with the propagation of negative ethnicity leading the body politic. Acting [this way] as a stateswoman is a liability,” says Dr. Simiyu Wasike, a political science lecturer at the University of Nairobi (UON). 

Seeking a Parliamentary seat for the first time in 1982, this graduate of the University of Pittsburg and the first female in East and Central Africa to receive a Doctorate, had her early ambition stymied by Kenyan authorities who knocked her out of contention on an unconvincing technicality. Realizing that a patriarchal streak routinely blackballed women who sought elective national offices, Maathai decided to concentrate her energy instead on running women’s organizations.

“I didn’t make the headlines, probably because I was not the President, or his daughter, and my husband also wasn’t that famous. It’s funny how such things can conveniently be forgotten,” Maathai reminisces to Toward Freedom about receiving her doctorate in 1971. 

Throughout the 1980s in Kenya the electorate was fixed on voting for male candidates. The situation was worsened by President Daniel Arap Moi, (1979 -2002) who did not shy away from publicly displaying a disdain for women generally, once referring to them as “little children.”  

In addition, the heavy tribal overtones that defined Kenyan politics at the time placed Maathai at a disadvantage as her ethnic community, the Kikuyu, coincidently the country’s numerically strong grouping, was suffering repression from the Moi government.

At the same time, Maathai forged ahead as an environmentalist crusader under the auspices of the internationally acclaimed Green Belt Movement (GBM), which she single-handedly initiated in the 1980s. The GBM has since established a Pan African Green Belt Network with offices in Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.   

One celebrated instance of Maathai’s resolve to protect the environment happened in 1989 when she led the fight against the building of a 60 story monument in a Nairobi park.  Thanks to her efforts, the monument project was abandoned in January 1990, but not before members of the Kenyan Parliament referred to GBM as “a bogus organization” whose members were “a bunch of divorcees.” 

Two years later, as the country prepared to hold its multiparty elections after a hiatus of 20 years, Maathai led elderly women to undress publicly as a last ditch effort to pressure the government into releasing political prisoners. 

“She is a mad woman,” said Moi at the time. 

In polls held in 1997 Maathai tried for the Presidency but was thoroughly defeated. “I lost because I did not identify with Parties whose base was intrinsically tied to negative ethnic identity,” she says. 

International Acclaim, Rising Star in Kenya

Over the years, Maathai has been showered with global honors. She is a recipient, for example, of a host of awards amongst them France’s highest honor, Legion Honneur, The Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights, the Petra Kelly prize for Environment, the Conservation Scientist Award, Outstanding Vision and Commitment Award, Golden Ark Award, the UN’s Africa Prize for Leadership, the J. Sterling Morton Award, and the Goldman Environment prize. 

In addition, she co-chairs the Jubilee 2000 Africa campaign, a pan African movement that seeks debt cancellation for African states. She also serves in the Boards of international organizations including UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament, the Jane Goodall Institute, Women and Environment Development Organization, Green Cross International, Environment Liaison Centre International, Worldwide Network of Women in Environment Work, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Prince Albert the second of Manaco Environment Foundation. 

In 2005, Time magazine named her one of 100 most influential people in the world, and Forbes listed her as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world.

Political fortunes for Maathai took a positive turn in 2002 when she overwhelmingly won a parliamentary seat in her ancestral home located in Central Kenya. At the time, political pundits believed that her victory was a consequence of riding a populist wave energized by disenchantment with the outgoing regime.  

“That time I just happened to have been lucky to win the primaries and to get endorsement from the popular party of the time. But if you look at my legislative record, I never pandered to negative ethnicity at any time. I stood firm as a stateswoman when expediency showed that grandstanding was the way out,” she says. 

The Nobel Prize panel, in awarding Maathai the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, said, “Maathai stood up courageously against the former oppressive regime in Kenya. Her unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression, nationally and internationally. She has served as an inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situations.”

Going Against the Grain

But despite the venerable award, the now 68-year old professor was bundled out of Parliament in 2006 after serving one term. And she has a poignant reason why she failed to recapture her seat.  

“I refused to succumb to the popular politics of the day which glorified tribal supremacy and instead chose to adopt a nationalistic stance. And despite losing my parliamentary seat, events taking place after the Presidential vote was announced vindicated my earlier decision,” Maathai explains. 

Indeed immediately after the Electoral Commission of Kenya announced results of the Presidential vote, the country was gripped with anxiety after internecine tribal clashes erupted. It took the effort of the international community to bring the two warring sides to agree to a negotiated way out. But within two months of feuding, close to 800 people were killed, while tens of thousands displaced from their homes. (See Kenya’s Violence: Britain’s Legacy)

With a population numbering close to 38 million people, Kenya is home to 42 tribal groupings. And on the last count, 156 political parties officially thrived, all having a heavy dose of tribal exclusivity. And close watchers of Nairobi are convinced that the scourge of negative ethnicity remains Kenya‘s greatest challenge. The status quo will likely remain intact unless authorities devise ways of expanding access to education for the 7.8 million illiterate adults that make up 38.5% of the country’s population.

Mathaai is not daunted by these challenges. “I don’t tend to invite challenges, but I meet them head-on. And once I face challenges I don’t quit, for I know the situation is not going to be resolved overnight, and I don’t hurry to meet a second challenge until the first one is concluded. That perhaps has been my strongest point. For I have seen time and again, that if you stick with a challenge and you are convinced that what you are doing is morally upright, it’s amazing what hope can do,” she says. 

She also faced problems back in 1977 when her husband Mwangi Maathai, a prominent politician, abandoned her, following two years later with a divorce. First, her husband accused her of being strong-willed. “She is too strong minded for a woman and I have been unable to control her,” the local media quoted him saying at the time. 

But the bomb was to land two years later when Maathai faced accusations of being an adulteress. While the High Court sitting in Nairobi bought the claim, Maathai publicly rebuked the Judges calling them “incompetent and corrupt.” 

Now a prominent businessman in Nairobi, Mwangi Maathai declined to comment for the story, saying that “Some things are better left unsaid.” 

“Every experience has a lesson." 

Maathai holds the controversial belief in Kenya that politics that revolve around negative ethnicity ought to be punished in the electoral booth rather than be rewarded.  

Indeed, members of Kenyan rights groups hold the Maathai in high regard. “She has been the proverbial Joan of Ark in so far as fighting for the opening up of democratic space is concerned here, but she is too lofty for distractive, self-serving parochial politics,” comments Maina Kiai, the former Chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. 

“That she lost her Parliamentary seat is not shocking. The sad aspect is that she has been verified for playing nationalistic politics instead of  the popular ethnic driven politics favored in Kenya that revolve around the issue of tribe. Kenya will certainly miss her services,” argues Muthoni Wanyeki, the Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.

Dropping all pretensions about why she dumped the political party that sponsored her to Parliament, Mathaai says that principal should precede political expediency including short time gain.

“I want to challenge the perception existing amongst a lot of people that alleges that good people don’t participate in politics. That perception tends to create the illusionary belief that all politicians are tricksters and liars. Yet in the case of Kenya for example, it is the existing lot of politicians that have routinely repressed the noble aspirations of the people, leading good people to eschew being active in politics,” Maathai says.

“I believe strongly that my primary role is to bring about societal change outside elective politics. Nevertheless, I recognize that there are limitations to what one can accomplish outside the Legislative House and that is the reason I am seeking to get back to Parliament without feeling beholden to politics of tribal identity.” 

Mathaai has no illusions that the path she has chosen to take will vindicate her in the future, even after losing elections in 2006. 

“Ethnicity is one of the major strategies that politicians have used to divide the African populace,” she explains. “In 1994, the world witnessed the horrendous genocide in Rwanda that killed nearly a million people, and currently the inter-ethnic violence in Sudan‘s Darfur region has witnessed the displacement and killing of thousands of innocent people. I do not believe that people who have lived as neighbors for hundreds of years can just begin attacking each other and killing one another without provocation or support from those in power. What happens is that politicians stir people up, giving them reasons to blame their own predicaments on people from other ethnic groups. This terrible tragedy has cost Africa many lives and many years that could have been used to promote development. And when ethnicity is linked to land, the result is often combustible.”   

Maathai then spoke of what she has learned so far from her experiences. “Every experience has a lesson. Every situation has a silver lining. Every person needs to raise their consciousness to a certain level so that they will not give up or succumb. If your consciousness is at such a level, you would be willing to do what you believe is the right thing, notwithstanding the popular opinion prevailing at the time. Life is a journey and a struggle. We cannot control it, but we can make the best of any and every situation.”

Journalist Tabitha Nderitu reports for Toward Freedom from Nairobi, Kenya.