Mary Walker: Kenyan activist belatedly honored by her government

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Mary Walker

Editor’s note: Clark resident Mary Walker volunteers at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 and provides a safehouse for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Walker’s updates from Kenya appear periodically in the Steamboat Today.

Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and founder of the international Green Belt Movement, was never a big hit with her own Kenyan government. During Moi’s regime, she was beaten and imprisoned more than once for mobilizing people (mostly women) to plant trees, protesting the parceling out of Karura Forest in the middle of Nairobi to political cronies, leading a hunger strike of mothers of political prisoners and successfully appealing to the international community (including the World Bank) not to loan Moi the funds to build a 60-story skyscraper along with a four-story tall statue of himself in the middle of Uhuru Park (the only open space left in Nairobi where people can linger and lie down on the grass in the shade freely and without being tormented by police). During the current Kibaki tenure, she was given the largely ceremonial position as a deputy minister of the environment for a couple of years. Her state funeral last week (only the third in Kenya’s history) was held at the spot called Freedom Corner where she led the mothers of political prisoners in protest leading to their release. Attending her funeral were some of the government officials who dismissed her importance and ridiculed her contribution to Kenya while the rest of the world recognized her for her contributions to international conservation of not only trees, water and environment but also her profound understanding of the relationship between the use and exploitation of natural resources and social, political and economic injustice.

But most people know her because she planted trees. A lot of trees. She loved trees. She directed that her coffin be made of water hyacinth, papyrus and bamboo but not wood. Water hyacinth is choking the life from Lake Victoria. Maybe this idea will catch on and the profit motive will result in saving the lake. Her model of the links between forestry health, reliability of clean water and economic sustainability has been proven sound throughout the world. She said every citizen can do a small thing to help the world and that her small thing was planting trees.

Most of the wananchi (the regular folks) stayed away from her state funeral at Freedom Corner, and many of her civic activist colleagues also boycotted it because of the hypocrisy of her being honored by her government only now because of the outpouring of international sentiment for her accomplishments. Instead, after the state procession en route to the crematorium, the wananchi swelled, surrounding the hearse and the family vehicles behind. They demanded to see her body. In Kenya, viewing the body is how to honor a hero or heroine. One of her colleagues climbed up on top of her hearse and explained that she didn’t want her body made public and asked them to sing a song instead. To the outside world, the situation probably looked menacing and chaotic, but it was not. It was amazing.

One of Wangari’s favorite expressions was, “Do the best that you can.”

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