Wangari Muta Maathai: "I've been thinking..."

Small and big things, local and global, bridging the communities of the elite and the every day, never losing the sight of the reason why it was important to do so. On the day of the memorial service for Wangari Maathai, Maggie Baxter remembers her friend and colleague

Maggie Baxter
14 October 2011

Not many receive such accolades, such messages of love, such messages of hope and appreciation. These messages from the leaders of the world - the Dalai Lama, Barack Obama, Prince Charles, President Bakari, Bishop Desmond Tutu  - and from the citizens of Kenya, can be seen on the website of the Green Belt Movement, Professor Wangari Maathai’s beloved organisation.

Wangari Maathai, “Prof” was a special person indeed.  A fearless activist and campaigner, a plain speaking academic, an astute strategic politician, a colleague, Nobel laureate, friend, mother and grandmother.

I met Prof when asked to come and listen to women from Africa talk about our threatened environment, about planting trees, about mobilizing women and development with their communities. I admit to falling in love and under her spell very quickly. Her messages came from her experience: irrefutable and based on evidence. At the time I was grants director at Comic Relief overseeing the investment of millions to Africa and the UK.  The day after meeting her I introduced her to Comic Relief, and unknowingly opened the door to resources to grow and sustain the Green Belt Movement for the next twenty years.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 was unexpected and sprang Prof into another sphere. The “three legged stool” became the talking point – the necessary balance of resource conservation, good governance and peace was necessary for harmony and progress for the world’s future. Prof would be thrilled to know that the Nobel Peace Prize winners announced last  week – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman – will ensure that her legacy will be carried on by three determined and inspirational women.

When the prize was announced in 2004 Prof became a global person - everyone wanted a piece of her.  And this demand continued on until the end.  I was honoured to be asked to become a founding trustee of Green Belt Movement International which was set up to manage this global interest, along with Ed Posey of the Gaia Foundation. The weeks that followed were intense – balancing the requests of the world, the desire to spread the word far, and wide at the same time as nurturing and maintaining the Green Belt Movement in Kenya.  The Nobel Peace Prize was in recognition of the work and vision of this organisation that demonstrated a way of building the skills, strengths and wealth of people in communities many miles away from centres of capital and business. An organization that promoted the view that the world’s resources should benefit those living in grinding poverty and  uncertain futures, as well as communities not so threatened.

There are few who have the courage to speak out, the strength to stand up to criticism and live with fear of reprisal or even assassination, the selflessness to fight for those with less access to power, and the clarity and integrity to know what is right and wrong. 

Prof’s presence was felt wherever she went.  I remember a visit to Womankind when she simply said thank you to everyone for what they were doing to gain women’s rights around the world – no lecture, just plain appreciation.  On international public platforms her presence added gravitas. In attending training sessions with colleagues she showed support and solidarity.  Small and big things, local and global, bridging the communities of the elite and the every day, never losing the sight of the reason why it was important to do so.  Her passion was to gain human rights, human dignity and equality of opportunity for those so often overlooked.

Over the years there have been many meetings to manage the world business of being a Nobel Peace Laureate, as well as strategizing the future for a national organization which had now become international.  One lasting memory is Prof’s inimitable words “I’ve been thinking…..”  This used to come after a night’s sleep on the previous day’s deliberations, and always resulted in a change of the decision of the day before.  It became a continuing joke at every meeting as well as a dread that decisions would be revisited, unpicked and remade!  Paris was one such meeting place.  We met in the city three times. The first just after the prize was given, then in the middle when we had a major breakthrough on the shape and content of a new constitution, and the last being in July of this year.  We didn’t know it would be the last although we did know Prof had been battling with ill health for over a year.

Reflecting on a recent meeting in London, of a different organization,  where we were making heavy weather of discussing how to influence politicians and policy makers I thought about what Prof would have said.  She would have reminded us of what mattered, shared her vision, spoken out and showed the way forward.  Not carp or find excuses for little or no action.  She would probably have ruffled a few feathers but would have known why and had the courage and conviction and charm to change people’s minds.  Unpretentious, unpopular with some for saying the unsayable, courageous in saying what people might not like to hear.  Never doctrinaire, always culturally sensitive and ever an incrementalist with a vision of what needed achieving.

What have I learnt by being close to someone so special?  The first is that you don’t have to be over complicated to communicate a serious message - you can use plain language which is so much more powerful and understood by all.  The second is that you have to say what you think and live what you say.  Don’t be afraid of making contributions and be brave enough to deal with the fall out.  And thirdly, appreciate people whilst they live and don’t live to regret having not said what you wanted to say.

I end with how I started. We have lost a special person.  I am lucky to have known her, and so sad to lose her, but hope I have a little of her left in me. 

As we approach her memorial service today Friday, October 14th2011, the world will celebrate the life of this extraordinary woman and source of great inspiration to millions.

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