1,133 is not just a number

Wangari Maathai cartoon

Kenya: Let’s not fail Wangari Maathai 

8 March 2018 - 13:03

Today is International Women’s Day. It’s a day set aside to remember the many important contributions of women throughout history and across all the world’s nations. Some call it “Women’s Day” while others call it “International Women’s Day” but the longer form title is actually the “United Nations (UN) Day for Women's Rights and International Peace.” The day’s full name invokes the importance of women in leading the struggle for a more peaceful and just world.

As Kenya joins the world in celebrating International Women’s Day, it is a good moment to honour the many outstanding women who have sacrificed life and limb to make this country better. Indeed, the democratic freedoms we have today are owed, in large part, to women like those who in 1992 pitched camp at Uhuru Park’s Freedom Corner demanding for the release of their sons who were being held as political prisoners by the Moi regime.

One of the women who stood up to the Moi government alongside the Freedom Corner Women was the noted environmentalist Professor Wangari Maathai. Pictures from the time illustrate the pain that Prof Maathai and the other bold women endured so that we could enjoy the freedoms that we have today.


Prof Maathai, who passed on in 2011, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for what the Norwegian Nobel Committee called her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” In other words, Maathai didn’t receive the prize because she kept her mouth shut while other Kenyans languished in an Orwellian hell. No, she was honoured precisely because she dared speak truth to power.

Then as now, Kenya is witnessing an assault on the institutions that underpin its credentials as a modern democracy. The executive is riding roughshod over the constitution. The police have become a law unto themselves. The judiciary is being undermined. Most worryingly of all, many Kenyans have become cynical and resigned. Those Kenyans that do dare pipe up are quickly told to know their place.

What would Maathai make of all this? Luckily, we have her own words to fall back on. When she went to receive the Nobel Prize in Oslo on 10th December 2010, Maathai gave a memorable lecture on the lessons she picked up in her life of activism. Everyone should read it. It is as inspiring as it is teachable. It’s hard to choose from the distilled wisdom of an exceptional women’s career but some nuggets stand out, particularly in the moment of history that Kenya finds itself.

“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other.”


“I know that African people everywhere are encouraged by this news. My fellow Africans, as we embrace this recognition, let us use it to intensify our commitment to our people, to reduce conflicts and poverty and thereby improve their quality of life. Let us embrace democratic governance, protect human rights and protect our environment. I am confident that we shall rise to the occasion. I have always believed that solutions to most of our problems must come from us.”


“I would like to call on young people to commit themselves to activities that contribute toward achieving their long-term dreams. They have the energy and creativity to shape a sustainable future. To the young people I say, you are a gift to your communities and indeed the world. You are our hope and our future."

Maathai, like Martin Luther King Jr, wasn’t popular in her time. As George Orwell aptly put it, “the further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those that speak it.” Maathai stood for what was right despite the risks. On International Women’s Day, as we honour Maathai and other women who have made sacrifices to make our collective lives better, we should also stand ready to ensure that those sacrifices were not made in vain.



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