Over the past few years, it has been my immense privilege to meet and come to know women I now think of as Wangari Maathai’s daughters: Sitawa Namwalie, Wambui Mwangi, Shailja Patel, Njeri Wangari, Muthoni Garland, Mshai Mwangola—there are many others. I mean daughters in a sense perhaps best expressed in the founding Gikuyu myth: women of consequence who have the power to move and shape nations. Women for whom nations will be named and re-named.
I think of these women today on learning that Wangari Maathai has died. I think of them not only because of the sense of loss they must be experiencing, but because they are, to my mind, one of Wangari’s most precious legacies to Kenya and to the world. These are, I confess, overly bold claims to make for my friends. But they are claims that need to be made.
Wangari Maathai was the crazy tree-planting woman. She was a tree-hugger extraordinaire. While we were learning that Kenya was an “agricultural country” and greedy developers were trying to “industrialize” Kenya, Wangari was a beacon, teaching us that our earth mattered. She captured our imaginations by directing us toward other possible eco-futures, by thinking and living green before these expressions had been coined. Were it not for Wangari, Nairobi would have turned into the concrete, tree-less mess it is now much earlier in our eco-histories. Many of us owe her the Nairobi and Kenya we remember, when green city described our trees, not Safaricom billboards.
Yes, as I mourn her loss, I also celebrate her legacy: her precious daughters.
Wangari taught us how to be audacious: to speak and act fearlessly in the face of insurmountable odds. To care for futures yet to unfold. To care for strangers in worlds to come. To act with conviction. To care about the public spaces we share, and to ensure those spaces remained public. Indeed, the history of public space in Kenya is inextricably linked to Wangari’s name.
She made it possible for us to envision acting when we thought action was impossible. She acted to create beauty.
I celebrate her daughters because they continue to act and create new possibilities for being and acting in the world. As poets, actors, writers, scholars, performers, and photographers, they continue to expand our spaces for thinking and being. Like Wangari, they continue to believe in better possible futures. As they inhabit the spaces she helped to create, they also create other spaces for other women in Kenya and around the world to inhabit.
Like Wangari, they continue to believe in the potential of beauty in the world. For if Wangari was an eco-warrior, she was also an eco-artist, reminding us of the pleasures afforded by green trees on hot Nairobi days. Her daughters continue to believe in the power of art and beauty to shape social imaginaries.
Because Wangari believed in creating futures—a planted tree seedling is a promise to the future and a promise to the earth—it is only right to remember her as the promise she embodied, a promise that continues to live through her daughters.
Wangari, tata, I thank you for the Nairobi I am able to remember. And I thank you for your daughters.
**My mother said I should write something about Wangari as I was halfway through writing this post.