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The Making of a Heroine

Published: 10/15/2004
By: NationMedia

Time works wonders. Wangari Maathai is an icon, saluted by the world and respected by the very people who trod upon her rights. But today's heroine was yesterday's iconoclast and we are not sure that we want her ever to change. Some insights into the woman and her worldview:

On being appointed an assistant minister in the National Rainbow Coalition Government: "At least I don't have to spend days in police cells. It is quite amusing sometimes when I meet the same policemen who were running after me with clubs and bullets. Now they are very respectful and they are saluting wherever I go. In a way it helps me understand the function of power.
"People can very easily forget yesterday and be overwhelmed by the power that they now have so it is very, very important to keep reminding oneself that one has been put there to do for me, to do what I could not do yesterday, to do it now."

While yesterday (1991) at the height of the fight for Uhuru Park she was threatened by an MP (the late Paul Chepkok) with circumcision if she dared set foot in his Elgeyo Marakwet District, today she can authoritatively state that all illegally allocated forests will be annulled and the parcels converted into woodlands without anybody raising a finger (April 28, 2003).

She contemptuously dismissed Chepkok's remarks with a snarl on men who
"regard their genitalia more importantly than their brain".

Retorted Wangari: "They are so incompetent that every time they feel the heat because women are challenging them, they have to check their genitalia, if only to reassure themselves."

And to remind the likes of Chepkok that she did not belong to their base pedestal, she said,
"I'm not interested in that part of anatomy. The issues I am dealing with require the utilisation of what is above the neck. If you do not have anything there, leave me alone!"

Yesterday, retired President Moi denigrated Wangari as confused and mentally unstable because, "only a mad person could plant trees in January when there are no rains" (February 8, 1999).

His callous comments came in the wake of shameless beatings and humiliation of Prof Maathai and others by hired goons when they went to Karura Forest to plant trees while protesting at illegal allocations. Wangari bitterly accused the President of taking advantage of his high office and elevation to ridicule a lowly woman whose only crime was to love the environment and deny him (Moi) "the opportunity to satisfy insatiable greed".

Today, Moi's successor President Mwai Kibaki is among the first people to congratulate her on her lofty achievement as the first Kenyan ever to become a Nobel laureate and the first African woman to win the coveted Nobel peace prize. Kibaki orders that she be airlifted by helicopter on Government expense to meet him in Nairobi for a word of praise.

Yet yesterday, the same Kibaki and other leaders jostling for power gave her a deaf ear when she came up with a "middle ground" approach to dislodge then dictator Daniel arap Moi. A thoroughly frustrated and disillusioned Wangari decided to contest the presidency herself.

After winning the Nobel Peace Prize she remarked: "Many of the wars in Africa are fought over natural resources. Ensuring they are not destroyed is a way of ensuring there is no conflict.

Then, she gushed out about her sh100 million plus bounty: "I have never seen so much money in my life. Some of it will definitely go towards the environmental programs. I have to make a budget and think about the things I will do - just like rich people (do).

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