Nobel laureate takes on Kenya's ethnic politics

Environmental activist Wangari Maathai will struggle to win a parliamentary seat in Thursday's general elections.

If anyone expects Wangari Maathai's venerable status as the first African woman to win the Noble Peace Prize to insulate her from Kenya's tribal prejudices during Thursday's presidential and parliamentary elections, they could be in for a rude awakening.

"She will certainly lose her parliamentary seat," says Mwangi Thuita, a resident in Ms. Mathaai's constituency. "She cannot fight the feeling on the ground. It's hostile against anybody who goes against the popular way, which is to vote on the same ticket with your tribesmen."

But despite the odds, the environmentalist is determined to change the course of Africa's politics.

"Ethnicity is one of the major strategies that politicians have used to divide the African populace," says Maathai. "I do not believe that people who have lived as neighbors for hundreds of years can just begin attacking each other and killing one another without provocation or support from those in power."

Prior to winning the 2004 Noble Peace Prize for her environmental and social work, Maathai won a parliamentary seat in 2002 by aligning with a political party that had strong ties to her Kikuyu community, Kenya's politically dominant and most populous ethnic group.

But now she is running for a party without that ethnic support.

"I believe strongly that my primary role is to bring about societal change outside electoral politics," she says. "Nevertheless, I recognize that there are limits to what one can accomplish outside the legislative house and that is why I am seeking to get back to Parliament without feeling beholden to politics of tribal identity."

It's a challenge political analysts here say is tantamount to bearding a lion in its den.

"I don't tend to invite challenges, but I meet them head-on," says Maathai. "And ... I don't quit.... For I have seen time and again, that if you stick with a challenge and you are convinced that what you are doing is morally upright, it's amazing what hope can do."

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