Good Reads: Wangari Maathai lives on – and so will Facebook

Wangari Maathai, Africa's first female Nobel Peace Prize winner, passed on this weekend. But Kenya has many activists who share her fearlessness, energy, and passion for justice.

Radu Sigheti/File/Reuters
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai shows her prize to a cheering crowd as she returns from Norway, in Nairobi in this 2004 file photo.

Wangari Maathai was Africa’s first female Nobel Peace Prize winner, a professor and environmental activist who took the beatings and harassment of the Kenyan government as a cost of doing business. Her persistence and ability to gather people around her Green Movement may have saved Kenya’s wilderness areas from the destruction that comes with unregulated growth and greed.

Ms. Maathai passed away this weekend at the age of 71.

When I met Maathai at her Nairobi offices in the spring of 2008, just after the bloody Kenyan post-election mess had been resolved, I finally understood why civic activists can be a powerful force in society. It comes from their strength: strength of convictions, strength of character, as well as physical strength.

Maathai had all of these, and more.

The reason the Kenya peace process, led by Kofi Annan and a handful of other African leaders, had succeeded, Maathai said then, was that Mr. Annan was an African, and none of the Kenyan politicians could blame their compromises on Western imperialists.

"It helped that Kofi Annan was African," she says. "It helped the principals [President Kibaki and Raila Odinga] to realize if they were being addressed, it was by one of them. They didn't have to fight over egos. They didn't have to prove that they were the big man, because Kofi Annan was the bigger man."

In Maathai, the Monitor saw a kindred spirit, someone who felt the need to make a difference in her world. See a Monitor interview with Maathai here and a January 2010 opinion piece Maathai wrote for the Monitor.

In London’s Daily Telegraph, Mike Pflanz reminds us of the physical costs that Maathai bore in taking on the corrupt government of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, and its plans to clear-cut forested areas to put in office blocks, and also the growing influence that Maathai had after Moi’s government fell during multi-party elections.

Xan Rice, the Guardian's man in Nairobi, notes that Maathai remained outspoken even after joining the post-Moi government of President Mwai Kibaki as assistant minister, and she didn’t flinch from criticizing the Kibaki government’s environmental policies, a fact that likely led to her serving only one term in parliament.

Kenya has many activists who share Maathai’s fearlessness, energy, and passion for justice. If they carry on her mission for clean governance with the same single-mindedness as Maathai did, that would be as great a legacy for Kenya as the continuing work of Maathai’s Green Movement.

A more modern activist

In the New York Times, David Carr caught up with an activist of a more modern sort, Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame. Mr. Assange is currently fighting extradition to Sweden, where he faces charges of sexual misconduct, but in the meantime, he’s couch-surfing at the English country home of a supporter, the restaurateur Vaughan Smith.

Assange is not an easy guest, Mr. Smith admits. “Julian messed with my pigs,” Smith said. Clearly this requires some explaining, and Mr. Carr thankfully does so.

Ellingham Hall, 130 miles north of London, is a working farm, and Mr. Assange decided to use the pigs to make a film about the credit card companies that have denied him the means to raise donations. Mr. Smith said Mr. Assange induced the pigs to break through an electric fence and make themselves at home in a nearby berry patch, a bit of porcine anarchy that did not amuse the farm manager.

'Why Facebook?'

And finally, frequent readers of this column will know that the Monitor tends to favor stories that answer the question of "why."

Check out the fine piece by Rebecca J. Rosen in the Atlantic, on why Facebook is likely to be a part of our lives for quite some time. The reason sounds a bit like extortion.

The other reason is the site's archive of our lives since we joined. The permanence of these memories on the site may unnerve some people (as well it should), but it is also a feature: The collection of those memories is hard to give up. When I've thought about canceling my Facebook account for one reason or another, the thing that's stopped me is the access to years of photos of me and my friends and family, the notes and messages we've written, and the connections -- however thin -- to people I've long since fallen out of touch with on every other mode of communication. Were I to join a new site, I would never have the nerve to "friend" (or whatever the equivalent of that is in the future) the people from high school, college, and long-ago travels who currently appear among my Facebook friends.

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