The battle for Uhuru Park
Unbowed: One woman’s story by Wangari Maathai
This second excerpt from Prof Maathai’s autobiography above is from the chapter Fighting for freedom.
Unlike the previous excerpt from Seeds of change, this one has been abridged in the interests of brevity. Even then, it’s still a longer read than the previous excerpt, but breaking it into two would have interrupted the flow, and left you on a cliffhanger.
In today’s excerpt, the free media live up to their role as intrepid whistleblower and public watchdog, and are no handmaidens of the Executive, at a time when the media did not enjoy even a fraction of the freedoms that are theirs today.
Eerily reminiscent of present discourse in some quarters of Kenya today, you will find allusions by those who were then in power to our precious sovereignty being threatened by elements who are puppets of the West. The events unfold in the year following Kenya’s 25th anniversary as a republic, and we’re now in the year of our Golden Jubilee at 50.
As you will see, for her efforts to save this public park, Prof Maathai was derided and openly abused in the foulest manner by (a male) Parliament no less, and attacked as a woman. Her riposte on anatomy is a stellar quote that will ring for generations to come!
If I may digress just slightly to a fitting citation to frame things on context in Prof Maathai’s single-soldier battle to save Uhuru Park:
Sustainable development is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Our Common Future (aka Brundtland report), World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987
Prof Maathai now ‘speaks’ (albeit abridged):
In 1989, a young law student knocked on my door. He told me he had learned from very reliable sources that the government was planning to build a skyscraper in Uhuru Park. Its lawns, paths, boating lake, and stands of trees provide millions of people in Nairobi with a natural environment for recreation, gatherings, quiet walks, or simply a breath of fresh air. As envisioned, the complex would consist a tower of sixty storeys high, and would house, among other things, the headquarters for KANU, the Kenya Times newspaper (the organ of the ruling party), a trading centre, offices, an auditorium, galleries, and parking space for 2,000 cars. The tower would be the tallest of its kind in Africa, and the complex would cost in the region of KES 4 billion (then about USD 200 million). Most of the costs would be funded through a loan guarantee from the government to the private investors involved (reportedly including Robert Maxwell of London’s Mirror Group Newspapers). The plan also called for a huge statue of President Moi.
I wrote a letter to the managing director of the Kenya Times inquiring about the complex and urging him not to build it if the rumours about the plans were true. I reminded him that future generations were relying on us to keep the park in the form that it had been bequeathed to us. I sent copies of the letter to the Office of The President, the Nairobi City Commission, the Provincial Commissioner, the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources, the executive directors of UNEP, and the Environmental Liaison Centre International. I also sent copies to the Kenyan Press, and a small story about my appeal ran in the Daily Nation on October 4. In the manner typical of the government of the day, the regime ignored me.
Shortly after, I discovered the construction would require demolition of two historic buildings, so I wrote to the director of the National Museums of Kenya who had recommended that the buildings be preserved, asking for his support. I copied this letter to, among others, the people I had sent my first letter to, the executive director of UNESCO, the Ministry of Public Works, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry for National Security and Administration, and the managing director of Kenya Times (again). Nobody could say that they were unaware of our concern.
I also shared my letters with the press. Fortunately, many journalists were very interested and pleased that I was raising this issue, and as they reported on my new campaign, people around the country began to take notice. Kenya was still reeling from the blatantly rigged elections just a year earlier, and many Kenyans, including the press, felt powerless against the government. They were, therefore, happy that someone was speaking out. In a letter in response to a media story quoting the Minister for Local Government and Physical Planning criticising the “ignorant few” opposing this “fine and magnificent work of architecture”, I closed with an appeal: “We appeal to Nairobi residents to raise their voices even higher: ‘Do not be afraid of speaking out when you know you’re in the right. Fear has never been a source of security…If the ministers ignore us, we will keep going until our faint voices reach the President…He too claims to be an environmentalist and he cares for his people.'”
At the heart of all my letters was a simple question: “Is it true?” All the government had to do was answer yes or no. Fortunately, the press made it impossible for the government to ignore me entirely. Reporters went to the people I’d written to and asked them, “Have you told her whether it’s true or not?” The officials would splutter and call me names and suggest that something was wrong with my head and the press would then faithfully come and tell me and the country what had been said about me. In turn, I would write to the officials and demand that they explain why they had told the press what they had. This went on until the building of the Times complex became a national discussion. The main justification the project’s proponents offered were that it would be a prestigious project, looks magnificent and that the tower would provide spectacular views.
The government was so arrogant that in addition to not answering my letters directly and belittling my concerns via the press, it began to abuse me in public. On November 8 1989, members of Parliament (MPs) used a procedure preserved for a national emergency to interrupt their debate to discuss…me. For 45 minutes, MPs expressed their outrage. How dare I write to a foreign government over what they considered a sovereign issue! Had not Kenya achieved independence years ago? And yet there I was threatening to take them to a colonial past! The complex would not affect the park at all…The President himself was internationally recognised for his commitment to the environment. The Greenbelt Movement was a bogus organisation. I wasn’t an MP: what mandate did I have to speak for the people?
Then the abuse turned personal. To the cheers of a packed house, one MP said that because I had supposedly repudiated my husband in public, I could not be taken seriously and that my behaviour had damaged his respect for all women. He accused me of incitement and warned Green Belt Movement members (my “clique of women” as he called them) to tread carefully. “I don’t see the sense at all in a bunch of divorcées coming out to criticise such a complex,” he concluded. Some suggested that if was so comfortable writing to Europeans, I should go and live in Europe…All this could have gone on much longer had not the Speaker stepped in and called an end to the farrago. But he had a final dig: “We hope Maathai has heard the sentiments of this House,” he said.
Yes, I had, and I wasn’t going to take those slanders lying down. I wrote a letter to Philip Leakey, my MP and Assistant Minister for the Environment. I explained that the only reason I had written to the British High Commission was that one of the investors in the project was Robert Maxwell, whose whereabouts I did not know. I noted the President’s interest in the environment and said that it was precisely because of this concern, which I shared, that I had thought if I raised my voice about the Times complex, he might hear me.
Far from acting against the spirit of the 25th anniversary of Kenya’s independence from Britain, I continued, I was acting in the spirit of Uhuru (freedom). “When I see Uhuru Park and contemplate its meaning,” I wrote, “I feel compelled to fight for it so that my grandchildren may share that dream and that joy of freedom as they one day walk there.” I had no intention of fleeing Kenya – for Europe or anywhere else. “This is home and this is where I will be. I hope that I will be buried right here in the heart of it.”
At another time and in another forum, I told Mr Leakey that I would discuss my marital status with the MPs, since they were so interested, but I wanted to keep the focus on the issue at hand. “The debate is on the proposed Times complex at Uhuru Park,” I wrote, and MPs should not be distracted by, as I put it, “the anatomy below the line (if they know what I mean!).” In spite of what the MPs might think, I assured him, my being a woman was irrelevant. Instead the debate over the complex required the us of “the anatomy of whatever lies above the neck!”
On November 15, at an official ceremony, ground was broken for the complex. On November 16, I wrote to the President, urging him in an appeal of “last resort” to stop the construction of the complex. I suggested that saving Uhuru Park for Kenya’s children, ordinary people and future generations would be symbolic of his personal commitment. I felt, I wrote, “like the Dutch boy at the dyke as the sea swelled,” with the President as the last hope.
I never heard back.
At the end of November, I sought an injunction in the High Court to halt construction but the case was thrown out on December 11. By this time, the independence of the judiciary had been so compromised that the decision did not surprise me.
The personal attacks continued. In early December, President Moi gave the project his seal of approval and offered his opinion that those who opposed the complex had “insects in their heads.” On December 12, Jamhuri (Republic) Day when Kenyans celebrate independence from Britain, the President gave a speech in Uhuru Park, no less…where he suggested that if I was to be a proper woman in “the African tradition” – I should respect men and be quiet.
Promopted by Moi, who wondered in that speech why the women of Kenya had not spoken out against this “wayward” woman, the leadership of Maendeleo ya Wanawake, our former National Council of Women colleagues and now a faithful branch of KANU, criticised me for “having belittled the President and the government.” They held rallies and press conferences to denounce me. At one point, they suggested I had “gone astray and should seek guidance from [my] fellow women.”
END OF EXCERPT
Prof Wangari won the battle for Uhuru Park.
The gem of nature in Nairobi that is Uhuru Park stands, ‘tree-ful’ and complex-free, all thanks to this indomitable woman. For details on how this came about, and the further personal and professional tribulations Prof Maathai faced paying the price to secure the park for posterity, please get yourself a copy of her highly recommended autobiography.
One of her women critics in that last paragraph in the extract above features on recent party nomination lists following the March 4 election, where, 25 years down the road, she is quoted as saying she “will champion peace and women issues in the Senate.”
Next excerpt will be from the chapter Freedom turns a corner.