Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wangari Maathai and the struggle for democracy in Rwanda

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 Madame Victoire Ingabire walking out of a Kigali court.

Wangari Maathai has died at a time when the world needed her most. It is important to pay her a tribute and to make sure that her legacy continues.

I first heard of Maathai in the mid-nineties while living as a refugee in Kenya. She stood out as a valiant woman, completely unwilling to strike compromises in her devoted criticism of single party politics. Her bold stand and dedication to democratic reform earned her many enemies and it was not uncommon for them to refer to her as mwendawazimu—that crazy woman! In retrospective, I now think that the problem was not so much that Maathai was against Moi’s dictatorship as much as it was about her being a rebel woman. One dissatisfied with the Status Quo.

In Kenya, just like in most Sub-Saharan countries, women are not expected to have independent thoughts. A well behaved woman is one who conforms to the patriarchal power structure. She does not publicly disagree with men (whether they are wrong or not being immaterial). Never is she permitted to oppose the ruling class. A “good” woman tends to the kitchen and devotes her time to the taking care of the family. In rare circumstances, she might be coopted by the ruling class—and, as is the case in Rwanda—be used as a statistic measurement to woo foreign donors. However, real political power remains in the hands of the males.

Maathai was a pioneer of many things. She was the first woman to earn a doctorate from Sub-Saharan Africa and the first one from Africa to earn the coveted Noble Peace Prize. Despite all these, she remained humble, approachable and true to the soil. There is a time, at the height of her success, when she was often scoffed at for driving a simple Toyota Corolla. She was then a minister and political leaders in Kenya are generally not known for their austerity.

A question begs asking. Is Mathaai's life just another passing of history? I am tempted to disagree. This leads to another question, why are powerful women so much feared.

In the United States, I have heard some say that if Hillary Clinton were to get elected, they’d be prepared to leave the country. Sarah Palin undoubtedly faces the same chauvinistic threats. In Rwanda, we have Victoire Ingabire, who has left Kagame’s regime a little shaken. She has been languishing in jail for more than a year, and all indications show that she is a victim of political witch-hunting. Let’s face it, women have a particular world-view, that most realists are unwilling to countenance. Once a woman stands up, we know that society is going to be impacted in some fundamental way, whether good or bad. In my opinion, the impact of women leaders on society is mostly positive.

Mathaai’s goal was to end environmental degradation and the chronic poverty that so many Kenyans face. Moreover, she believed in the democratic promise and found no reason why Kenyans should not partake of it. These noble goals were blocked through the most degrading humiliation subjected to her. The messenger had to be destroyed along with the message. She was often arrested without reason, and her hair often forcefully shaved off by authorities too eager to rob her off her womanhood. This is in fact the title of Salim Lone’s tribute, “[t]hey shaved off the hair of a woman [Maathai] who was decades ahead of her times”. The Kenyan police had been trained to deal with male saboteurs. A woman revolutionary presented an unfamiliar threat them. They were totally unprepared.

Back in my Rwandan home, Ingabire is kept in a poorly lit room, her head completely shaven off. Her attorneys are constantly harassed, and the state is unwilling to let go of her—the apparent lack of evidence notwithstanding. The crimes Ingabire is accused of are the same ones Mathaai often had to brave. The Rwandan leader, Paul Kagame, rarely refers to her by name. Some of the charges like genocide ideology, a poorly defined crime, according to Amnesty international, were allegedly committed in the Netherlands. It does not matter that Rwanda has no jurisdiction over them. She is, in the words of Kagame, “that [rebellious] woman”. When a president takes a stand in any case against you, it is futile to expect justice.

Yet, Mathaais end is a battle well fought. Very few people are as celebrated in their death. It is an optimistic reminder to all of us that freedom will always triumph over oppression. Maathai gives us a reason not to despair, and to continue the struggle. Democracy in Rwanda is a must win.

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