Wangari Maathai was not a good woman. Kenya needs more of them. by Nanjala Nyabola
Nobel Prize winner and pro-democracy activist Wangari Maathai was the
embodiment of the idea that “good women seldom make history”.
25 September marked four years since the passing of Kenyan
environmentalist and feminist icon, Wangari Maathai. Around the world,
the anniversary was marked by speeches, tree planting ceremonies and any
number of other events that resonated with Maathai’s legacy as a
feminist, an environmentalist and one of the foremost leaders of the
post-Cold War democracy movement.
In Kenya, however, the celebrations were notably muted – a handful of
disjointed events by various individuals. A few days after the
anniversary, the city council quietly announced that it was naming a
road after Maathai to which many reacted with a figurative shrug. There
was a poorly attended family fun day at the Karura Forest that Maathai
sought to protect, and even though the event was free, few turned up.
There wasn’t even a hint of recognition at the highest levels of
Yet this is Professor Wangari Maathai.
The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The first Kenyan
woman to earn a doctoral degree. An icon of Kenya’s democratic movement
who repeatedly put not just her mind but also her body on the line in
order to secure a better future for Kenyans and their natural
Maathai was a consistent thorn in the side of the autocratic
administration of Daniel arap Moi which lasted over two decades up to
2002, and she revolutionised the act of protest in Kenya by centring it
on the female body. In urging the protesting mothers of detainees to
strip when threatened by security officers who were threatening to break
up their protests, Maathai wove traditional beliefs on nudity and
gender together with contemporary political struggles to foment a
decisive moment in the struggle that brought women into the centre of a
political discourse in which they had only previously been included
peripherally. She was an intellectual and an activist who ultimately did
more to spur on the democratic movement in Kenya than nearly anyone
It’s not that Maathai doesn’t have some kind of standing in Kenya.
Most people recognise that she accomplished something. Her name will
roll off the tongue if one is pushed to identify iconic women in the
country. She stood up to the Moi administration and seemingly won at a
time when most Kenyans believed it simply could not be done. Most
Kenyans get that this is important.
But Maathai’s standing in Kenya is definitely ambiguous. She is
beloved by feminists and environmentalists, and tolerated by everyone
else, a fact that underscores the culture wars that pervade the Kenyan
public sphere. The collision between traditions – mainly codified and
preserved by outsiders through a stagnant colonial education and a
pick-and-choose aspirational modernity that sees the value in keeping
some traditions as long as they benefit power – has created many
problems, particularly for women. Women are expected to look backwards
on guidance on what it means to be “good” – where “good” is primarily
defined by men – but not too good because that makes women less
interesting to men.
The Madonna/Whore paradox is prevalent, and to navigate it many women
live a Janus-faced existence that hides elements of their sexuality,
their ambition or their personality from the male gaze. They are forced
to pretend to be “good” to satisfy societal expectation and navigate the
relatively small social and political space that remains.
But this was not Wangari Maathai. Maathai was brash and unapologetic.
Her PhD was one thing, but she also divorced her husband at a time when
divorce was still a major taboo and was roundly and publicly attacked
for it. She insisted on leading from the front, rather than spectating
while men battled for the soul of the country.
Because private morality is still so determinative of public
standing, especially for women, most Kenyans still don’t know what to do
with Maathai’s legacy. Kenya loves “good women”, but Maathai was not a
“good woman”. Rather, she was an embodiment of the modern proverb “good
women seldom make history”.
Even in death, Maathai’s legacy pays the price for this. For
instance, every few months, Kenyan social media is seized by a paroxysm
of misguided Moi nostalgia while by contrast Maathai’s anniversary
barely registered. Parts of the forest she fought to save have been
cleared for diplomatic missions and contested commercial development.
Although she rose to the rank of Minister under the 2002 administration
of Mwai Kibaki, she roundly lost in local elections in Tetu constituency
in 2007 – a mere three years after she had won the Nobel Prize.
If an alien landed in Kenya this week they’d think Moi was a hero and Maathai a mere footnote in national history.
Maathai’s legacy is a victim of both the casual misogyny and the
political schizophrenia that characterises Kenya’s public sphere. Like
all other female politicians, when substantive policy critiques failed,
her private life was laid bare for public consumption, particularly
during her divorce. These stories would be replayed everywhere
throughout her political career as a cautionary tale for women choosing
to enter into politics – a reminder that only those with near virginal
moral standing should be considered eligible to venture into mainstream
politics. In Kenya, we want women to be strong and opinionated, but not
too strong and not too opinionated – not like Maathai.
Kenyan politics will hold up women as emblems but denies them full
participation in the highest levels of government, instead publicly
referring to female politicians as “flower girls” and creating a
political ghetto in the women’s representative positions that
effectively wrote women out of mainstream politics. Maathai wanted to be
more than an emblem, and Kenya still doesn’t know what to do with that.
Those who love her – primarily similarly insubordinate women who
recognise the suffocating restrictiveness of the country’s political
misogyny – do so passionately. Meanwhile, those who dislike her go
beyond badmouthing her legacy to ignoring it completely, slowly and
systematically writing her out of the democracy movement even though
arguably it was her Mother’s Protest that set off the active phase of
the pro-democracy demonstrations. Consequently, an entire generation is
growing up that, worse than not liking Maathai, simply doesn’t know her.
Casual misogyny in the public sphere in Kenya can reach mind-boggling
levels. We live in a time in which an MP is caught near red-handed in
the act of rape and the country’s most popular comedian
responds by questioning why she was with him. In which the president
responds to the brutal sexual assault of a 4-year-old girl by her uncle
and his friend by asking “where was her mother?”
In which a national television station warns women who study beyond
undergraduate level that they will never find a husband. In which women
seen as being “indecently dressed” are violently stripped on the streets, with the vocal support of prominent public figures.
The situation in Kenya is such that US President Barack Obama can
give a speech at the Kasarani National Stadium, observing at one point
that “you cannot get ahead if half of your team isn’t playing”, and a
journalist with a full spread in the most popular newspaper can say “I
agree with everything Obama said, except that thing about women”. We
live in a society in which silence around violence against girls and
women is pervasive – 25% of women in all age groups
have endured some kind of sexual and physical violence – and yet the
first question victims of violence are asked is “what did you do to
bring this upon yourself?”
Maathai’s legacy wrote against this toxic narrative. She was
imperfect but somehow more effective for that fact, as she marshalled
her imperfections as if to say “if I can do it, so can you”. She did
more to give Kenyan women space to simply be themselves in the context
of this casual misogyny and political schizophrenia than any woman of
her generation merely by refusing to be a “good girl”.
That Kenya still doesn’t know what to do with this legacy says more
about the country than it does about Wangari Maathai – a testament to a
nation deeply at war with itself over what to do about women who refuse
to be “good”.
Nanjala Nyabola is a Kenyan writer, humanitarian advocate and political analyst, currently based in Nairobi, Kenya.