News / Africa

Kenyans Reflect on Legacy of Wangari Maathai

Gabe Joselow

Kenyans are in mourning following the recent death of Nobel Prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai.  Some shared their thoughts at a park in Nairobi that Maathai famously fought to defend.

Uhuru Park is a peaceful stretch of land on the edge of downtown Nairobi.

The name means freedom.  And Kenyans owe the existence of this beautiful place to the environmentalist work of Wangari Maathai.

Paul Gatheru came to Nairobi six months ago. He says he spent many peaceful hours here while looking for work in the Kenyan capital.

“After realizing that she is the person behind this park and how she actually fought about it, we could not be enjoying it as we enjoy it now,” Gatheru said.

Maathai saved the parkland from development more than 20 years ago -- leading demonstrations and eventually defeating the developers in court.

If not for her action, Mary Wambui Mwaura - a city worker here for the past 10 years - would not have a job.

“In that time, the government wanted to grab this ground, to build private houses.  But Wangari [stood] firmly and said 'no, that can't happen,'” she remembered.

In 2004, Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental activism -- becoming the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the award.

She is also remembered for her political activism, particularly against the government of former President Daniel Arap Moi.

Nairobi businessman Eliud Thigari recalls meeting Maathai during a political event at a church in the town of Thika.

“We happened to meet with her, to interact with her within that church, and she told us to fight, to not to fear, to fight for our democracy," he said.  "Since then we continued to fight until such a time, the government of today allowed us to have a multi-party democracy.  That was in the year 2001.”

Maathai's Green Belt Movement planted many of the trees in Uhuru Park.

Shukri Aden says he learned to respect and love the environment while growing up, thanks to Maathai.

“We lost a woman who is very friendly to the environment, she was such an environmentalist woman.  She has conserved a lot of places in the environment.  So it's just a big blow to Kenyans.  We've lost a very very fantastic woman,” Aden said.

Kenyans say there may never be another Wangari Maathai, but her message will not be forgotten.

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