Trees have been an essential part of my life and have provided me with many lessons. Trees are living symbols of peace and hope. A tree has its roots in the soil yet reaches to the sky. It tells us that in order to aspire we need to be grounded, and that no matter how high we go it is from out roots that we draw sustenance. It is a reminder to all who have had success that we cannot forget where we come from. It signifies that no matter how powerful we become in government or how many awards we receive, our power and strength and our ability to reach our goals depend on the people, those whose work remains unseen, who are the soil out of which we grow, the shoulders on which we stand.
I have chosen to open the blog with this excerpt from Wangari Maathai’s memoir ‘Unbowed‘ because, I feel, it sets the scene for the forthcoming arguments about WM’s philosophy. Much of her work is understood through the entry point of trees and ecological restoration, but she is a multi-dimensional individual. I want to share what I understand as her philosophy, and make a case for why we should all be Wangari-ists. These views are informed by substantial engagement with her four texts: Unbowed: One Woman’s story, The challenge for Africa, Replenishing the earth, and the Green Belt Movement. In addition, they are informed by engagement with communities & staff that worked with her during her efforts to restore degraded forest lands – this was through the course of my doctoral research in the Nyandarwa landscape.
Slideshow of book covers
Following are some of the key defining elements of Wangari Maathai’s philosophy. Of course, you can analyze her thought from many other dimensions, but these are those that stick out for me.
- A deep environmental consciousness that is grounded in indigenous knowledge systems
WM locates her story at the foothills of Kirinyaga where she was born. Kirinyaga was later renamed Mt. Kenya during the colonial era/error. The mountain was and is considered sacred by the Agikuyu people, the community to which she belongs. She details how the mountain served an anchor to the community because “everything good came for it: abundant rains, rivers, streams, clean drinking water. Whether they were praying, burying their dead, or performing sacrifices, Kikuyus faced Mt. Kenya, and when they built their houses, they made sure the doors looked towards it.” She argues that these communal ecological linkages with land and landscape were dismantled by the destructive legacy of colonialism. She provides a poignant example of the Mugumo tree, which is also considered sacred by the Agikuyu people. When she was growing up, her mother told her that the Mugumo was a tree of God and it was was to be treated with utmost respect. Upon her return from the USA for her studies, she found that the Mugumo tree near their home had been cut and a church erected in its place! She concludes that this is how “hallowed landscapes lost their sacredness and were exploited as the local people became insensitive to the destruction, accepting it as a sign of progress.” These and other experiences that were linked to Agikuyu indigenous environmental thought informed her future community-driven ecological restoration and societal reconstruction works.
Anecdote: A person who worked with Prof. Maathai told me that a Mugumo tree that was situated at the Green Belt Movement offices fell when she died in 2011. Nobody dared touch it!
2. A recognition of history as a weapon in social justice struggles
This is tied to no 1 above because, I believe, history and indigenous knowledge systems are related. Throughout her texts and work, she engages with and reaches back into history to understand the present day struggles and triumphs. In ‘The challenge for Africa‘ she embarks in a thorough deconstruction and reconstruction of the history of the brutal slave trade, colonial occupation, and neo-colonial encirclement and links them with the destruction of Africa’s cultural infrastructure, humanity and associated livelihoods. One of her best examples of use of history as a weapon is during the struggle to save Karura forest from land grabbers and the Moi regime. At the height of her brutalization by the state she said: This is our land! Our forefathers fought for this land. This is my blood! This is the blood of Waiyaki wa Hinga. We will not dignify theft. Now, recall that Karura forest actually exists because of application of indigenous knowledge systems. The elders who owned both Karura and city park forests left a death-bed curse and said that those forests should not be destroyed and they should contain indigenous tree species. When the colonial government took over, they established plantation forests there, essentially desecrating the landscape. Back to WM: She memorialized Waiyaki wa Hinga at the height of this struggle. Waiyaki wa a Gikuyu elder who was captured by the British and buried upside down (head first) in Kibwezi. He was later transformed into a martyr for the nationalist cause during the Kenya Land Freedom Army (Mau Mau) struggle for self determination. Emotive songs of protest featuring Waiyaki were sung to memorialize his humiliation, as well as to galvanize the struggle. Songs with these lyrics were sung widely:
Wiyaki’s war was the first one!
Waiyaki called them and asked them!
You are letting all the land be taken away
What will your children inherit?
When WM invoked Waiyaki wa Hinga, she located the struggle to save Karura in history. She remembered. She used memory to link the past, the present, and the future. The struggle to claim Karura from the sleazy tentacles of land grabbers was to be of benefit to all future generations. Karura stands today as a testament of and an immortalization of that sustained struggle.
3. Community mobilization as a critical ingredient for liberation of African peoples
Unbowed was the first of WM’s books that I read. While attending a course in Rome, I met an Inidan colleague who was reading WM’s ‘The Challenge for Africa‘. I had seen the book in the book shops, but I thought it was another book whose focus would be on telling us what is wrong with Africa. At that point I had already been bombarded with too much of that, so I did not buy it. I asked my colleague why she was reading it and she said that she was going to be doing some work in Africa and wanted to get a better understanding of the continent. I decided to borrow her book and give it a quick look. I was still quite skeptical at this point. I read the description at the back and thought: not bad. Then I started reading chapter 1: The farmer in Yaounde. I was hooked! She tells a story of a farmer who she saw cultivating up and down the slope in Yaounde. At that time, she was in a hotel for a conference and observing the farmer from there. She tells the story beautifully and compellingly and finally argues that ” how many even see farmers such as the ones I saw that day? Shuttled from hotel to conference centre and back in luxury cars, accustomed to high powered meetings with donor or officials, many policy makers may not take the time to recognize how hard the people of Africa are working to make a living in circumstances that are getting more difficult, day after weary day….it is on the hillsides like these and with women that we must work. That’s where those of us concerned about the fate of Africa and her citizens must focus our energies, for it is where the vast majority of Africa’s peoples are, and it is with their lives that we must engage.”
4. Environmental issues cannot be divorced from governance, politics, and leadership discourse in Africa
Some people in the CONservation arena in Africa believe that it is not important to engage with politics/governance, because that is too HARD or DIRTY. But, what is not affected by politics and governance? Establishing small enclaves and fencing them off does not separate those enclaves from the larger landscape and associated governance challenges. Through her work with the Green Belt Movement, WM demonstrated that governance and politics are central issues in understanding governance, resisting mis-governance, and cultivating good leadership. The struggle to protect Uhuru Park, Karura, Jevanjee gardens, Ngong forest, Mt. Kenya, Mau, Nyandarwa forests are all tied to governance, stinky bad politics, and pathetic leadership, where the state presides over the destruction of the environment on which its citizenry is so directly dependent. Leadership and governance remain Africa’s primary challenges- in my view. We are now seeing a new scramble for Africa via China and others. To this end, WM’s words are instructive: In the past, people entered Africa by force. These days, they come with similarly lethal packages, but they are camouflaged attractively to persuade Africa’s leaders and peoples to cooperate. Of course, such packages are eye-catching to many African governments , not least because they may be free of “conditionalities,” such as respect for human rights, protection of the environment, and promotion of equity. She makes a case for studying Africa’s pre-colonial governance and leadership systems and applying them to develop robust political systems that serve the needs of African peoples.
5. Calling out the hypocricy of the West, understanding the foundation of white supremacy and racism
In my experience, foreign diplomats and businessmen speak politely when African leaders are present. In the quiet of their boardrooms and embassies, however, I’m sure they know all too well when the leaders with whom they conduct business are not doing right by their people. If their own leaders are doing the same things, they would be chastising them.
Who can argue with this? Hyprocisy reigns in the extractive relationship between Africa and the the west. In the end, those who suffer are African peoples. The other day I was thinking: Is there any western nation that has shut down its mines in the DRC because it insecure and there is war? War, chaos, poverty are necessary for the west and others to flourish in Africa. Who manufactures and sells weapons of war? In her memoir she details her experiences with race and racism in the USA, including a time when a hotel refused to serve them drinks because they are “Black”. She describes her experiences growing up in a settlers farm in the Rift Valley where her father was a squatter. She observed how poverty of the African population was systematically entrenched through amongst others, the use of marketing boards, through which the Africans could sell their produce at a pre-determined price. One day he father was working in Mr. Nelyan’s Compound. She went to see him there and found herself close to Nelyan’s daughter’s room: Through an open door I saw a compartment full of clothes. More than 20 dresses must have been inside…”how can anybody have so many dresses?” I asked myself. It was as many dresses as I had seen in my whole life. At that time, I think I had two dresses, maybe three. Africans must study and understand white supremacy. They must understand and engage with race and racism. Shying away from these issues does not help us understand the assymetrical power relationships that characterize our world today. You can not solve a problem that you do not understand. Also, you cannot be the doctor if you are the disease.
6. Peace and conflict resolution – trees as an entry point
This ties up to the quote used at the beginning of this blog post. Throughout her work, WM structured her work around the tree, starting with the seed, to the seedling, all the way to fully grown tree. She encouraged communities that were in conflict to plant peace trees, again drawing from the well of African indigenous knowledge systems and environmental consciousness. The other dimensions of conflict were tied to environmental governance in the sense that if the environment is in good condition, then there would be less conflict over resources such as land, pasture, water, etc. How many African leaders understand this?
7. Transformative education
WM believed that education should be geared towards solving societal challenges and creating more robust societies. She is probably one of the leading African scholars who used her scholarship and education for social transformation. In my view, one of her greatest accomplishments is changing people’s minds/transforming the way people thought about the forest and associated resources. Over the course of my research, I met elders and other community members who would say to me: WM helped me understand myself, she taught me that self-knowledge is very important, she also made me realize that the forest is mine and I should take care of it. Thus, her work helped to raise consciousness. It is very easy to build large infrastructure and other kinds of “projects”, but transforming the way people think has got to be the pinnacle of intellectual achievement. Regarding education she had this to say:
Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from the land, but instill in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost.
8. Recognizing one’s mistakes, failures and weaknesses
I really like people who recognize and document their mistakes. When WM was the Member of Parliarment for Tetu, she encountered difficulties in managing the Constituency Development Fund. This was more a clash of ideologies – she believed that people who served in commitees or who came for meetings should not receive compensation because they were doing this work for the common good. On the flipside, the people believed that they deserved to be compensated for their time. She writes:
Although I believe strongly in the value of service…most people in Tetu are poor. Leaving their fields, putting aside work on their small businesses, or finding someone to look after their children in order to attend a commitee meeting was a big sacrifice. Several expressed their dissatisfaction….If I had to do it again, I would try to find a way to compensate those who served in committees.
9. Spirituality and environmentalism
In ‘Replenishing the earth’ she draws on the religious texts and other verbal spiritual traditions of the world, to make a case of caring for the earth so that in return it cares for us. Infact, she argues that spiritual values, more than science and data, might be the true catalysts in solving global environmental challenges such as climate change. What if we all applied spiritual values of caring for one another, showing compassion, cultivating love, forgiveness, recompense, justice…instead of selfish values of plundering the earth and each other? She calls for a REVOLUTION OF ETHICS among African peoples, and I would extend it to all other peoples’ of the world.
I call for Africans to discover and embrace their linguistic, cultural and ethnic diversity not only so their nation-states can move forward politically and economically but so that they may heal a psyche wound by denial of who they are…It is they who must begin a revolution in ethics that puts community before individualism, public good before private greed and commitment to service before cynicism and despair.
Note: she also challenges the practices of religions, e.g., in Christianity where the clergy want to live off the poor, and in fact encourage the practice of earth plunder so as to give tithes and offerings. She gives an example of where a woman cuts a tree and sells it in order to go and give tithes in church.
10. I will be a hummingbird!
This one is best illustrated in this film. It centres around doing the best you can. Doing the little you can. Acting locally. Do not be overwhelmed. I also think of it as being relentless, like a Mosquito! Those who have spent a night with a mosquito will tell you that a small insect/small action can make you change or think differently. Be a humming bird! Be a mosquito!
So, there you have it. Do you need more convincing? You should be a Wangari-ist because:
- She thought in multi-dimensional ways, was a Pan-Africanist, embraced complexity in tackling environmental issues
- She believed in the power of African peoples and their knowledge systems
- She was not ashamed of her culture/heritage – infact, she used it as a tool for liberation
- She embraced her womanhood with all its struggles. Infact, she called for African women to be emancipated from silence
- She was a hummingbird and mosquito all rolled into one.