On the morning of 24th September 2011, the world woke up one morning to the sad and tragic news that Professor Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist, human rights activist and Nobel Peace prize winner passed away the previous night at about 10 PM in Nairobi hospital.
Although she had finally lost a long battle against cancer, she had won many battles during the incredible 71 years of her life.
I last met Wangari Maathai in 2010 on July 26 during the screening of her autobiographical movie, ‘Taking Root, the Vision of Wangari Maathai.’ I was the moderator of the post-movie discussion so as soon as the screening ended, I went forward and ushered Wangari Maathai to the stage. She shook my hand and said in her gentle but firm manner, ‘people must not forget where we came from.’
For almost an hour, I sat proudly next to her and watched as she engaged both the audience and panelists with her trademark vigor. It was such a refreshing and reinvigorating experience as we collectively walked down memory lane and dissected what that great daughter of Africa had been through.
Although her life is over, her dream of sustainability lives on. Hers was a life that changed democratic space in Kenya and entrenched environmental sustainability into the very heart of global discourse and action.
She achieved so many groundbreaking things during the 71 years of her life. She was the first woman to earn a PHD in East and Central Africa. She started the Green Belt Movement and spoke out about the central role of environment in the society when barely anyone in the world was doing so. But even back then in the seventies, she understood that you cannot separate the earth that we depend on from the world that we live in. Hence she championed both environmental and democratic initiatives.
In 2004, the world at last caught up with her when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Finally, the world formally acknowledged what she had known all along – that the earth and the world are intertwined. That environmental sustainability must walk hand in hand with social and economic progress. That the environment is a key pillar of peace.
At 10PM on September 25th, Wangari Maathai’s green and life-changing journey came to an end. The world is a better place because of this journey. We must follow her footsteps and practice what we preach. Our own lives must continue changing our world not just through talk, but through action..
Thank you, Wangari Maathai, for following your dream and changing our world, in both small and big ways. We should all follow in those indelible, green footprints.