Matthew Kukah: Prof. Wangari Maathai: One year after

by Matthew Hassan Kukah

 She described her divorce aptly as a tornado, which passed through her house. For, in quick succession, she lost her job in the university, was disqualified from contesting an election, ejected from her house, and went to jail, all in the twinkle of an eye.

My much anticipated and scheduled meeting with Professor Wangari Maathai in May 2007 failed, much to the regret of both of us. It was a meeting that I had worked on and very much looked forward to, but many factors worked against us in the end. Sadly, although we both agreed that we would work out something else to make another meeting happen, we all drifted in different directions and the matter receded. Let me quickly explain the context of our proposed meeting because I am probably beginning to sound like someone who was stood up or jilted.

By the beginning of 2007, I had made substantial progress with my work on reconciliation between Shell and the people of Ogoniland. At my invitation, President Olusegun Obasanjo had visited Bori in 2006 to mark the highpoint of my work, which was to lay the foundation for the building of a public monument for the Ogoni 13. In 2007, I believed I needed to round up and hand in a report to President Obasanjo who was scheduled to leave office on May 29th.

After a lot of thought, I finally resolved that we would mark this event in grand style by getting representatives of the six clans in Ogoniland to each plant a tree of peace. I wanted this event to be remarkable and so, two people came to mind: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Professor Wangari Maathai, both Peace Nobel laureates. After a long and winding process of tracking down Archbishop Tutu, I finally flew to Cape Town to intimate him and then offer him an invitation. He accepted. I then began a process of trying to locate Professor Maathai. I finally did and through her secretary, we exchanged emails and spoke on the phone.

President Obasanjo had already told me that if she proved stubborn, I should use his name to threaten her. Although I did mention his name, she was delighted first that I was a priest and knew about her work. She told me she too was a Catholic and really looked forward to our meeting. I told her I had read her new book and looked forward to talking to her about a lot of the issues she had raised. I also asked if she would be ready to address some professional women while in Nigeria and she said it would be a great delight for her.

I had no idea what a stubborn and resilient woman she was. Her schedule was nail biting. She told me that she might be somewhere in Geneva and that she would fly from there straight to Nigeria rather than trying to go back to Nairobi and that all I would need to do would be to purchase a one way ticket from Lagos to Nairobi for her. At the last minute, she called me to apologise that something had come up and could we shift our programme by two days. She was really anxious to be at the event. She told me that the Ogoni struggle and the issues had more than a passing appeal to her and that it would give her a chance to pay tribute to Ken Saro-Wiwa. Unfortunately, we could not reschedule and that was our last conversation.

Like millions of her admirers all over the world, I was shocked by the news of her death, especially as I had no idea that she had been ill. It is impossible to understand and even begin to think of how to celebrate this incredible woman. The shortest cut would be to read her astonishingly beautiful and gripping autobiography, Unbowed: One Woman’s Story.

Her great book tells the beautiful story of her struggles through life and how sheer grit, faith, and courage combined to catapult her from a very lowly family upbringing to the heights of her country’s history. Born into the Anjiru clan, one of the 10 clans associated with the Kikuyu myth of origin, she indeed lived up to the attribute of her clan which is associated with leadership.

Despite all the difficulties in her personal history and that of her country’s colonial experience, and despite living through the Mau Mau revolts and coming from the same area as the famous Dedan Kimathi, Professor Maathai tells her story with such charm, integrity, simplicity, and honesty.

The most fascinating part of her story is in chapter 7 of her book, titled, Difficult Years. Her travails are a summary of the travails of the average African woman in patriarchal Africa. She had returned to her country with a Ph.D. and picked up a teaching appointment with the University of Nairobi. Her husband also belonged to an elite class, having himself studied abroad and turned to politics. She combined her career with following up with her husband’s campaign team. Having been educated abroad, she was anxious not to be seen as a white woman in a black skin. It was an unspoken problem that she and not her husband had a Ph.D. and taught in the university.

She described her divorce aptly as a tornado, which passed through her house. For, in quick succession, she lost her job in the university, was disqualified from contesting an election, ejected from her house, and went to jail, all in the twinkle of an eye. She sums it beautifully but painfully in her book when she said: “I woke up and was confronted with the question of what to do with my life. I had no job, no salary, no pension, and few savings. I was about to be evicted from my house. Everything I had hoped for and relied on was gone in the space of three days. I was forty-one years old and for the first time in decades, I had nothing to do. I was down to zero.” (p163)

However, this remarkable woman, fired on with an incredible faith in God and herself, moved on to conquer the world by becoming the first Kenyan person and African woman to receive a Nobel Prize for Peace. She went on from there to change the way the world would see women, she redefined the meaning of tragedy and her success made her the toast of the world. She was, clearly the most remarkable, most visible and by far the most influential African woman on the continent.

As it is with us in Africa, it is only in death that jealousy, prejudice; small mindedness melt after God has shown us that everything He allows to happen in our lives has a purpose. The story of Professor Maathai is the story of faith, it is the story of persons believing in themselves and drawing much strength from seeming failure and frustration in the course of life. Like the rest of us, she must have had her own failings and challenges. But none of these should stand in the way of any assessment of this remarkable gift of God to Africa. Her life has thrown up many questions and I will end by making reference to only three of them.

First, there is a lesson here for African men and women. More and more men should be encouraged and not threatened by the seeming stubbornness of their wives. It seems clear that a streak of stubbornness, courage, faith and belief in one’s self are all vital ingredients for success. Her life and sacrifice, a combination of the tenacity and stubborn belief of a Joan of Ark, the courage of a Princess Diana and a bit of the simplicity of a Mother Theresa. Her life is a call for the celebration of the African woman. She restored the dignity of womanhood.

Secondly, she has demonstrated that sound education remains the source of liberation for our women in particular and the rest of us in general. If we are to celebrate her legacy, Africa must renew her commitment to ensuring that we pursue the principles in the laws supporting the girl child.

Thirdly, and finally, Professor Wangari had a strong heart of forgiveness and an absence of bitterness. Her husband must of course have his own story to tell. But the book tells a story without bitterness. According to her, when her husband insisted that she change her name after the divorce, she did. But, as she stated in her book, “I am not an object, the name of which can change with every new owner!” By some inspiration, she simply added a syllable, a, to her husband’s surname, which was Mathai and took a new name of Maathai. She suffered in the hands of the Kenyan political elite who used the judiciary and the machinery of state against her on many occasions.

Her death has left a vacuum in our lives. She has demonstrated that a woman can succeed on her own, using her God-given talents. A woman need not become somebody merely because of her husband or her father’s pedigree. Africa and the African woman will never be the same again because Wangari Maathai passed this way. We have her to thank for renewing our hope in mother earth and creation.



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

Comments (0)

  1. Father kuka, it's more than a beautiful piece you've written eschewing the virtues of a woman likened to a pearl. May her soul rest in perfect peace. She wil forever be remembered by all who treasure her & her works.

  2. I'm blessed. Thank God for making me a woman.

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