Monday, August 5, 2013

FORGOTTEN AT HOME, MAATHAI LIVES ON IN AMERICA

This is what I said about the Nobel Prize laureate Wangari Maathai in my book, The Politics of Betrayal: Diary of a Kenyan Legislator, on page 283: "When laureates in other countries were being treated as national icons and sought after for advice on a myriad of international and regional matters, Maathai was being treated shabbily at home. Travelling abroad, she is honoured with red carpet treatment and feted by Presidents and Kings, but at home she is treated as an ordinary mwananchi, perhaps in response to the years she spent taunting the authorities in power."

That was early in 2011. In September that year, the celebrated human rights crusader and environmentalist died of natural causes at the age of 71. Other than the trees she planted in Karura forest and in many other parts of the world - that will remain her lasting legacy -  in an international campaign to green our mother planet, I am not aware of any permanent monument that has been built in Maathai's honour in her home nation of Kenya. In the United States and in many other foreign lands, her memory still lives on.

This past week, I had the opportunity - which I didn't  get when I lived in America more than 30 years ago - to visit five American states on a 1,800 miles road journey stretching over two days - from Indianapolis through Illinois, the country of Abraham Lincoln; Arkansas, the land of Bill Clinton; Texas, the cowboy territory of the Bush family; Tennessee, the home state of the rock n roll king, Elvis Presley; and Kentucky, the domain of the famous finger-licking fried chicken creator. Everywhere I went, there was some form of landmark to remember their great sons.

But it was in Memphis, Tennessee, that I came face to face with one part of history that touched me profoundly. The visit to the National Civil Rights Museum filled me with emotions, anger and hope in equal measure. The museum traces the civil rights struggle from the 17th century when Africans arrived in the US as slaves, to now when black Americans are enjoying greater freedom and equality.

The star of the struggle was, and is, definitely the late Dr. Martin Luther King. The museum dedicates considerable space to Dr. King's journey as a peaceful agitator, pastor and civil rights leader over a period of 13 years. The main display at the museum is the hotel room where he spent the night before he was killed. He had travelled to Memphis from his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, to lead a march in support of garbage collectors who were demanding better working conditions.

He had stepped out to the first floor Lorraine Hotel balcony to consult with his aides when shots rang out from across the building where the confessed killer, James Earl Ray, had taken a room. Dr. King's modest hotel accommodation appears the same way as it was on the day of his assassination on April 4th 1968: one double bed, one single bed, two half-consumed cups of coffee, and a television set.

However, the anger boiling in me about Dr. King's murder eased when I saw a large picture of our hero Maathai on a wall in one of the display rooms at the museum.  I jumped in joy. It was one of about 50 portraits of great human rights leaders. Next to hers was one of Bill Clinton, the man who made significant contributions to improving the lives of African Americans. As president, Clinton employed more people of colour in high government positions than any other president in the history of the country. It dawned on me at that moment that Maathai was a much larger-than-life figure than many Kenyans assumed.

What struck me most as I toured the buildings was the solemnity  and absorption of visitors - black and white - who quietly took pictures, their faces showing obvious signs of agony and reflection. They came to honour Dr. King, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, at the age of 35. His valiant contributions helped to change the destiny of African Americans tremendously.

Now, back to Kenya. Recently, a proposal was made to spend millions of shillings to build statues for past presidents. The money was to come from the exchequer, milked from poor Kenyans. In the United States, such edifices are financed from donations of individuals, corporations and foundations. The National Civil Rights Museum, for example, is a privately run project and not a single state penny was used to put it up. The idea of using state funds to build memorials is absurd, but that does not mean that well wishers cannot get together and contribute money to honour Maathai. If there is anyone who deserves a monument anywhere in the country, it is the former Tetu Member of Parliament from the scrubby Ihithe village in Central Kenya.

And that is my say.