The Leopard of Kenya

How An Occupation And A Leopard Saved A Forest


A community activist, exhausted from a day of door knocking, fell asleep on the living room couch. In her reverie, she dreamed of an organizer’s Valhalla. She met and got to know the people of a neighborhood. The activist discovered the needs and wants of the people there. Grabbing hold of the most desperate needs of one segment of the population, jobs and a sustainable environment, she started small by recruiting some neighbors to the cause. She combined educational sustenance with physical work. Soon hundreds of neighbors joined in the effort. Thousands across the country heard the success stories. The movement grew like mushrooms after a fall rain.
For Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, the dream came true. She astutely analyzed the plight of her home area, mainly Kukuyan women.  Two issues repeatedly surfaced and intertwined. The deteriorating environment was an integral part of their plight. Clear streams and rivers turned brown with topsoil loss from deforestation. Nutritious native crops were replaced by the mono-cultured, cash crops of tea and coffee. The polluted water and lack of nutritious food were contributing to unhealthy children. Women also needed income. Gripping those main threads, seeing the connections between them and not losing focus, she went to work. The result – thousands of women, and men, obtained employment ameliorating the environment. And across her homeland, thirty million trees bloomed.

By now, any activist reading these lines knows what probably happened to achieve all this. Beatings, jail time, relationship woes, sabotage, no money, movement participants turned thieves, life underground, vilification in the press, and government spies. Through it all, Dr. Maathai remained, in her words, unbowed.
Wangari Maathai, who passed away last month at the age of 71, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. From very humble origins in the Kukuya region in the Rift Valley of Kenya, she was part of the Kennedy airlift.  Six hundred Kenyans, including President Barak Obama’s father, were brought to US colleges and universities. One of her first roadside stops here brought her face to face with Jim Crow. Maathai and her African companions were denied seating at a bus stop. She came to admire Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. These experiences were important as nonviolent protest became a weapon in the environmental and political struggles that ensued upon her return to Kenya.

Maathai’s political maturation grew as she strove to connect the Green Belt Movement to the women’s’ groups to freeing political prisoners. The struggle to save the Uhuru (Freedom) Park, thirty-four acres of green in central Nairobi, included all these forces. Harassment, violence and jail met her and those movements at every step.

Truth was a casualty of struggles in Kenya going back to the fight for liberation from England and colonialism. Despite hysteria in the bourgeois press in the late 1950s, thirty-two white settlers were killed out of the four thousand who died at that time. Estimates indicate over one hundred thousand Africans died in concentration camps and emergency villages. Some Kenyan Leaders, particularly its second President Moi,  pursued their own agenda of concentrating wealth and power, cynically used tribal and ethnic divisions that were exasperated exacerbated under colonial rule. In a twist of the truth, President Moi accused Maathai of divisive tactics.

The fight for the publicly owned Karura Forest in Nairobi exemplified many aspects of the struggle in Kenya and Maathai’s key leadership role.  At the dawn of the new millennium, Kenyan forest cover was less than two percent. The United Nations Environmental Program states that a ten percent forest cover is a minimum for sustainability including water, soil and wildlife habitat. In its pursuit of privatization, the government would hand over public land to their wealthy benefactors. Wangari Maathai’s argument was that stealing from the national treasury or the selling of public land was the same thing – theft.

In 1998, the government decided to give a part of the Karura Forest to “friendly” developers for office buildings and private homes. Maathai discovered a road was already being built there. She began writing government officials and alerted the press. The Daily Nation printed aerial photos of the destruction. Green Belt Members visited the site and began planting trees. A group of young men wielding machetes descended on them, dug up the trees and threatened the group. Construction workers intervened and saved them from bloodshed.

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