Tribute to Prof Wangari Maathai


The sad news of the death of Prof Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s Nobel Peace Laureate, has resounded round the world: the tributes including from our Foreign Secretary William Hague are a testimony to her huge legacy.

For me personally, it was an enormous privilege not only to get to know Wangari Maathai, but also to work with her on the recent efforts to open up and restore the Karura Forest.

Her personal association with the forest, through her own sacrifices in saving it from developers in the 1990s, gave her an unquestionable authority.

But more than that, her warmth and humanity, and her personal integrity and commitment, shone through every meeting, every speech, every tree-planting or strategy session.

More than anyone I have ever met, she was a living demonstration of how you cannot separate environmental activism from democracy, transparency, and good governance.

You don’t achieve her sort of record in fighting for democracy and rights without upsetting some people, and it is not surprising that she remained a controversial figure in some quarters in Kenya.

But for me, the status conferred on her by the Nobel Peace Prize shows exactly what this sort of award is for: not only to honour those who deserve it, but to compel others to recognise them too.

Ordinary Kenyans are rightly proud of her, and she elevated the simple act of tree-planting into a hugely symbolic and popular gesture.

She really will be missed, by millions of people who never met her, as well as the thousands who were lucky enough to be inspired by her at first hand.

*Macaire is the British High Commissioner to Kenya.  This blog was first published on the Foreign & Commonwealth Office website

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