Professor Wangari Maathai's tree-planting ideas transformed her from a simple village girl into a global icon with many firsts. She not only rose to the skies, her village, country and the continent's women were elevated too, courtesy of her influence.
Wangari Maathai was simply extraordinary. With dozens of awards bestowed on her, on top of colourful citations, she never lost touch with her beliefs and never forsook her tasks as a vociferous grassroots environmental defender. She hobnobbed with the rich, dined with the famous, shared the podium with celebrities and potentates, but never looked down on the people who had supported her work to help het reach dizzying heights of fame. She was at home with the simple womenfolk in the villages, soiling her hands planting trees.
Her run-ins with government were legendary, and on many occasions she suffered physically at the hands of an intolerant Kenyan government under President Daniel arap Moi, which was keen on riding roughshod over this "intransigent" woman who would not allow the government to build a 6o-storey edifice in Uhuru Park in the heart of Nairobi, the capital.
An event chat rook place in 2004, the year Professor Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize, is worth retelling. It was the one rare moment that she became a motivational speaker for environmental journalists. Though it was a public event, much of what happened that night was never made public. Thanks to editing and the lack of oomph in environmental journalism, the best part of what happened that night remained in the archives.
Exactly eight months before she got her famous call from Ole Danbolt Mjos, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Prof Maathai was the guest of honour at the awards ceremony of the Peter Jenkins Awards for East African Conservation Journalism which took place on the evening of 26 February 2004 at the Nairobi Serena Hotel opposite Uhuru Park.
At the time. Prof Maathai was the assistant minister of environment, natural resources and wildlife.
Before the ceremony started, she was deeply engaged in an animated "conservation conversation" with celebrated conservationists, including Philip Coulson, a representative of the awards; Daphne Sheldrick and Eric Fait, the then director of communications at UNEP.
When the ceremony began, the Prof Maathai who spoke was not the one everyone knew. I thought she had mellowed after joining the government, even though we had all been...