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What if Wangari Mathai was alive as the world battles cOVID-19?

NAIROBI, Kenya Apr 16 – What if the late Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai was alive as the world battled the COVID-19 pandemic?

It is a ‘jealous’ menace that has enveloped almost everything and as a result many things have gone unnoticed including the late Wangari Mathai’s birthday celebration which would have been marked on April 1.

She would have turned 80.

As of April 16, the virus had infected more than 2 million people globally with 134,669 deaths. Back home, 225 cases have been reported with 53 recoveries and 10 deaths.

Wanjira Mathai-her daughter- caught up with Capital Business, where she walked through Wangari’s various achievements including a campaign put in place to honor the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate on her D-day.

On her birthdays, the environment icon would have planted a tree, if she was alive, the Greenbelt movement staff would have surprised her at work…a cake, some environmental song.

“That’s how she marked almost every birthday. And that’s how she marked her last at the Green Belt Movement. She planted her 70 first tree on April 1st of 2011. And that will always be a reminder for us of her love for trees and the environment,” she said.

As leaders across the globe strive to protect its citizens during these tough times, be it by cushioning them from economic effects, ensuring their health or assuring of security, its imperative to re-imagin what Wangari’s input would be.

‘My mother was extremely patient and committed and cared about others.   I would say she has a deep sense of social capital.” In emulating this, Wanjira says we should be inspired by this concept of ‘Ubuntu’, we are in this together and that I am because of you.

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“That we cannot be selfish about things in this season – we have to consider our health and security in a systematic way.  That the impacts of our choices will go beyond our families.   And we have to consider the most vulnerable amongst us,” Wanjira noted.

Mathai further gave deep insights on some of the achievements and impact felt by Mathai’s legacy including a glimpse of the future plans of the Green Belt movement she founded 40 years ago and Wangari Mathai Foundation (founded by Wanjira.)

“One of the most important achievements is the level of environmental awareness that Kenyans as a whole have gained.  Kenyans are some of the most environmentally aware people in the world.   We love our parks and our cities.  The challenge we have is that we do not always realize we also own them as citizens of our country,” she said.

Karura Forest and Uhuru Park are some remarkable sites that cannot be mentioned without Wangari Maathai’s name coming up. ” We are lucky Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement fought, that we might have such natural beauty to enjoy,” she said.

The environmental icon left a great impact in the world.

Young global activists, including Vannessa Nkate(Uganda) ,Elizabeth Wathuti and Claire Nasike of Kenya, Unelka Maoga and Greta Thunberg (Sweden) are seamingly emulating her path in leading the activism drive.

“These young women are passionate about the environment and for some of them, their inspiration comes from Wangari Maathai.   I’m inspired by the fact that our future will be well in their hands. I think Africa, and Kenya, is doing quite a bit to sensitize about on climate change.  But there’s still a lot more we can do. 

Were it not for this global pandemic, the Wangari Maathai Foundation would have put up a campaign to celebrate Wangari at 80, Wanjira said as she recalled a great motto she learned from her mother, “a healthy environment supports healthy people’.

“This is as good a time for any for us to hear her voice again. We needed to be inspired by her example and the work that she committed her entire life to.   

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The next chapter for the Green Belt movement as a legacy to  remember the environment icon is multi-faceted, Wanjira said.

Besides the GBM movement which remains her well known legacy around the world, She also left a rich legacy in higher education. The Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi seeks to bridge the gap between knowledge and practice.

Another one is the 5-year-old Wangari Mathai Foundation initiative founded by her daughter.

“We wanted to share the spirit of who Wangari Maathai to the children and youth.Inspired by the legacy of the 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate our focus is on the “Power of One” t- the idea that each of us could be a potent agent of change,” Mathai said.

The WMF has various programs including one dubbed Wanakesho, targeting children aged 6-17 which is focused on curriculum experiences that incorporates among other things emotional intelligence to younger people. The other is called En- Courage and it is centered on courageous leadership for the youth (18-35)

The WMF is putting up a Wangari Muta Maathai house which will house Maathai’s work, exhibits and awards and they be shared with the general public through programs, exhibits, and activities.

It will also be a place for young people to get together and reflect on issues they care about and trigger conversations.  It will eventually be the home for our Youth Cafés,” Wanjira added.

Even though this year’s women’s celebration day remains silent, the leadership struggles of women entreprenuers came up. Wanjira, just like many others said she battles the issue of “not being taken seriously enough and finding enough time to do everything at home and work (work/life balance).

“I would say to any woman in this month of women that they should believe in their capacity to change their world, to define the world they want to see and begin to work towards it.  To get involved in activism in whatever areas interest them,” she said.

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As part of its agenda, WMF is also focused on inspiring youth leadership and inspiring young people to be the best versions of themselves. 

“We believe that change will come when the entire society is moving in the right direction.  Men and women together, Wangari Maathai was an exemplary leader and a good example for all of us of what it takes, and the impact one can have when you are patient, committed and persistent,” she said.

She’s gone, but her motto of a healthy environment support a healthy people, remains relevant- more so now that the world is grappling with effects of global warming coupled with related and unrelated pandemics.

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