News and Views
In death as in life, conservationist and Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai was a phenomenon, a fact confirmed by the glowing tributes in her honour on Saturday.
She was the “champion”, a “national heroine”, “remarkable”, “true friend” and “a true trailblazer” in the words of the speakers at her state funeral that lasted just over an hour.
President Kibaki led the mourners that included top government officials, diplomats, heads of international organisations, religious and business leaders to the funeral.
Prof Maathai’s body was later cremated on Saturday.
The love and respect the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner commanded in life was replayed in the tributes with the select band of speakers calling on Kenyans to carry on with the work she started.
“The best way we can honour her is to carry on the great work she started especially in the fields of environmental conservation, social justice, human rights and democracy,” President Kibaki said in his tribute.
The same line was echoed by other speakers.
They included Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka, Norwegian Ambassador to Kenya Per Ludvig Magnus who spoke on behalf of the diplomatic corps, former UN-Habitat executive director Anna Tibaijuka and Director-General, United Nations Office at Nairobi Sahle-Work Zewde.
Dr Tibaijuka also represented Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete and Ms Zewde UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
The state funeral was held at Uhuru Park’s Freedom Corner, the very grounds Prof Maathai led mothers of political prisoners in a protest to demand the release of their sons.
It is also at the Freedom Corner that Prof Maathai had one of her bitterest battles with retired President Moi when she single-handedly fought off attempts to construct a 60-storey edifice by the Kenya times Media Trust (KTMT).
KTMT was associated with the former ruling party Kanu.
President Kibaki referred to Prof Maathai as a “national heroine” who did not shy away from speaking out on what was socially just and democratic.
“We recall, with gratitude, her active participation in the agitation for political reforms in the country and her exemplary performance as a Member of Parliament for Tetu Constituency and as assistant minister in my government in the ministry of Environment, Natural resources and Wildlife,” the President said.
The President said Prof Maathai had served the nation selflessly, with great courage and tenacity. Through her concern for the plight of rural women, she initiated environmental conservation programmes that eventually set in motion the birth of the Green Belt Movement.
“Certainly, she has stood out as Kenya’s most outstanding champion of environmental sustainability and through her relentless efforts, present and future generations in our country and region will enjoy a much cleaner and safer environment,” the President said.
He also praised Prof Maathai’s determination to get education at a time when education for girls was elusive.
In his tribute, Mr Odinga said the country had lost a great leader. The Premier also recounted Prof Maathai’s battles with the Moi government over conservation, god governance and respect for human rights.
“Inside that coffin made of water hyacinth lies one of the greatest leaders and heroes of our country,” said Mr Odinga.
“The site we are standing on today is here mainly of because of her efforts. She single-handedly fought the construction of a 60-sotery building here,” Mr Odinga said. He recalled that the last function he held with Prof Maathai was the planting of trees at Mau forest.
“Maathai’s legacy goes beyond Kenya. We have lost a dedicated Kenyan patriot but she will continue to live in the hearts of Kenyans and her works will continue to inspire the whole world,” the PM observed.
Vice-President Musyoka who was the minister for Environment when Prof Maathai – then his assistant minister – won the Nobel Peace Prize said the best tribute to her was to reverse the trend of global warming and climate change.
“Our departed sister was a true trailblazer. Out of her global recognition, Africa is richer,” said Mr Musyoka.
Ms Zewde paid glowing tribute to Prof Maathai whom she said had furthered UN ideals of environmental conservation, democratic governance and respect for human rights.