March 3, is African Environment Day. It is meant to raise awareness of the environmental challenges the continent faces. Celebrated annually, and originally set aside by the African Union in 2002, it is synonymous with the late Prof. Wangari Maathai and her green legacy.
This came about following a 2012 resolution to have the African Environment Day commemorated jointly with Wangari Maathai Day, who not only was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but also contributed to the sustainable development of Africa through her numerous ventures.
If this day is a case study of what can be done to combat the realities of climate change in Africa, Maathai’s name holds a venerated space. This is no wonder the AU verbiage is African Environment Day and Wangari Maathai Day.
You can make a lot of speeches, but the real thing is when you dig a hole, plant a tree, give it water and make it surviveWangari Maathai
Born in Nyeri, Kenya, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate was a pioneer in environmental conservation. She founded the Green Belt Movement in the 1970s and by the time of her death in 2011 had become a global phenomenon and in the intervening period attracted multiple awards and honours. Her trailblazing work would inspire future Nobel laureates like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and more recently young environmentalists like Karen Kimani, who are following in Maathai’s footsteps.
While she’s easily accessible to the public mind given her tree-planting efforts, rightly so, her life was dedicated to other courses using tree planting as an entry point to tackling issues of governance, conflict and peace, and long-term resource management. These are reflected in the public memory of her organized Freedom Corner hunger strikes, and her fight against the development and encroachment of forest spaces like Karura, Jeevangee Gardens, Uhuru Park and Congo Basin (illustrating her pan-African spirit).
In fact, to my mind, it is these efforts using eco-critical perspectives, and in a decolonised sense, that made her a Nobel laureate. The Norwegian Nobel committee lauded her for her work citing it as awarded for ‘her sustainable work in the environment, democracy and women empowerment’.
Her intellectual acuity saw her earn a doctorate and later become the first woman professor in Kenya
Her intellectual acuity saw her earn a doctorate and later become the first woman professor in Kenya. Indeed, her work with the Greenbelt movement, a distinctive social movement at the intersection of environmental, social and civil causes, demonstrates her ability to contextualise and with nuance, contemplate solutions. She tied her mainstay agenda of conservation with democratic struggle through political activism against a dictatorial regime, KANU then.
In fact, Grace Musila, professor of literature at the University of Witwatersrand, exemplifies her work, activism, critique and intellectual contribution as a public intellectual concerned with the ‘precarious lives’ that of women, rural communities, and communities of the global south. In other words, she married the idea of conservation to social justice. With time, her life and work have elicited varied academic interests, a testament to its rich contribution both nationally and internationally.
This year’s celebration, however, comes against a backdrop of fires razing the Aberdares and a devastating drought in Kenya and the wider Horn of Africa. This is punctuated by little reportage on the same which is ominous. Rivers are drying, water levels in dams are falling, rains are failing, and for some reason, this is not making news or attracting attention as it should.
RIVERS ARE DRYING, WATER LEVELS IN DAMS ARE FALLING, RAINS ARE FAILING, AND FOR SOME REASON, THIS IS NOT MAKING NEWS
The media is not as responsible, as Maathai envisioned, and is not playing its key role in amplifying the climate change message as it should. This means degradation of the environment passes under the radar as it’s paid lip service and is left invisible with the primal focus being on other convenient topics of politics for instance.
Parks and forests are slowly being occupied by private utilities across the continent. In Kenya for instance, public green spaces like Uhuru Park and Mama Ngina WaterFront have been turned into concrete spaces in the name of beautification. The result is that there is a retrogressive development of the very spaces that Maathai saw as vital for the urban populace. In Congo, private business interests are threatening the basin and it has been securitised to protect such interests.
Perhaps, she’s rolling at her grave or if she were to wake up perhaps she’d die of congestive heart failure. If we are to honour her legacy, then perhaps those at the top levels of government ought to consider her doings and build on them instead of eroding them. Maathai’s commitment to the protection of the environment is so monumental that a continent saw it fit to honour such a legacy. It beholds us as a country to acknowledge with a sense of national pride an icon of freedom that Maathai was.
If we are to honour her legacy, then perhaps those at the top levels of government ought to consider her doings
However, there is a silver lining. The story of the infamous Maathai hummingbird! Commitment and effort, however minimal, are key despite everything that seems to not be working. I’m nauseated by the fact that, instead of proactive interventions, we seem to not move beyond the real and righteous fact that we, as a continent, contribute less to climate change, but are suffering the most from it.
We can also find some spirit to keep us going by reading her conscious memoir Unbowed. A seminal writing among African life writing, it personifies the tenacious spirit of pursuit of human freedom from environmental, social and civil inconveniences which bow the human spirit. Indeed looking at Unbowed, and the environmental legacy of Maathai, one cannot help but admire the tenacity with which she lived her life, fought for her beliefs and perhaps most importantly her courage at an uncharacteristic time.
This African Environment Day, let us endeavor to protect our planet, ecosystem and its species by having each of us do our little thing just like the hummingbird. Plant a tree, water it and see it grow for mother nature needs that as much as she can get now.
Keep reading – Devastating drought in the Horn of Africa, by Caroline Kibii.