Monday October 17, 2011 | 11 comments
Edited by Jane Pettigrew
My grandfather once told me of a tree that was sacred to Kikuyu culture and tradition – the “Mugumo” fig tree. This tree was where his father and all his ancestors worshipped. Mugumo trees were sacred and were never to be cut down, so some grew to great heights, casting their canopy of leaves as a symbolic protection against cultural change and adulteration. Theirs was a time before the foreign visitors came, before colonialism. I listened to the passion in his voice as he described the tree that had been a shrine for the tribe. “Trees and this land – hold them close to your heart, Joy. A piece of land is not a small thing.”
I learned from a very young age that the Kikuyu valued land above all things. This was our wealth, and trees were sacred, for they held the land in place like glue. Without the trees, the land would yield little. Trees were planted often, well tended, and given almost reverential respect. We planted trees on many occasions; births, deaths, and even my departure to America years ago were marked by the planting of trees. My father said, “When you return, you will see that the tree you planted has grown to great heights.”
A few weeks ago, it was with profound sadness that I learned of the passing of one of Kenya’s most famous daughters, Professor Wangari Maathai. She was a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Kenyan environmentalist, political activist, and a lover of trees, but most of all a close family friend.
Professor Maathai was born to Kikuyu farming peasants in 1940 in a small village near Mt. Kenya in the country’s central highlands during the heyday of colonial Kenya. Like my grandfather, her family worked the ancestral land that had been handed down patrilineally over the years to the sons of the family. In her book, Unbowed: A Memoir, Professor Maathai often refers to her childhood memories and to the importance of the land, saying “when you rubbed it between your fingers you could almost feel the life it held”. She reminisces about a stream near her home where the clean, refreshing water runs close to the sacred fig tree, similar to the one my grandfather talked about.
Professor Maathai, fondly called “Mama Miti” (Tree Mother), would later rise from her humble beginnings to become one of Africa’s most beloved daughters and a global environmental ambassador; her organization, the Green Belt Movement, would serve as a platform for forestation and agro-forestation efforts in rural Kenya and beyond. As she championed the plight of the landless poor, women’s rights, and human rights, her backdrop was a country that was rife with post-colonial tribal politics and human rights violations. Wangari Maathai often butted heads publicly with the government and personally with her husband. He filed for divorce on the grounds that she was “too strong-minded for a woman” and that he was “unable to control her.” In defiance of the divorce, Wangari Maathai refused to drop her married name, instead adding an extra “a” – her contribution to a burgeoning African feminism that was slowly taking root in the educated female elite who had come back home from studies abroad.
When she fought alongside my father for multi-party politics in the early 1990s, she bravely took on a very repressive and corrupt regime that had been in power for over 20 years. As she protested with him and others on the streets of Nairobi against the corruption and land-grabbing practices of the government, she was often tear-gassed, beaten, and put in jail. She was determined to stop at nothing until a new “free for all” Kenya was realized and democratic rule had become the order of the day. Perhaps it was because she and my father had witnessed so many atrocities during the colonial times and because their education abroad had opened their minds to new political ideas of human rights and democracy that their determination was unequivocal. They left no doubt in anyone’s mind that they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to see Kenya free.
Their efforts yielded multi-party elections in the late 1990s, a new government in Kenya in 2002, and eventually the creation of a new constitution that was promulgated on August 27, 2010. This new constitution included a new bill of rights, which, among other things, recognized the socio-economic rights of Kenyan citizens, introduced environmental rights, and brought an end to gender discrimination.
My personal journey with Professor Maathai began on an uneventful morning in 2004 when I heard the news that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize. She was the first African woman and environmentalist to be recognized by the global community with this prize. I was obviously ecstatic and excited. I immediately called my father and told him I wanted to meet her. I was even more excited when I heard that Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise were to host her celebrations in Norway. Maybe I could hobnob with her and her celebrity friends. It was purely selfish on my part!!! Alas, any fantasies were quickly crushed when my father said, “What could you possibly have in common with her?” He was right, of course. By now, she had become a national treasure, with all sorts of national and international accolades.
I heard from my sister how humble and unassuming she was and how she had encouraged my sister to fight for justice as a lawyer. “Look for justice in every situation, no matter how elusive it is,” she told her as she was completing her Masters in Law in Manchester, U.K. She had certainly made an impression on my family. I longed to meet her, to sit at her feet, to learn the wisdom that she so readily dispensed.
Fast forward to April this year and another chance to meet her, at least over the phone. As the principal owners of Royal Tea of Kenya were meeting with the executive board and management of Kenya’s 580,000 small-scale tea farmers, I was discussing with one of my father’s close friends the idea of our newly conceived RTK Foundation. He said this idea was not only brilliant, but that it could tie in with the work of the board to raise funds for education, health, and environmental initiatives for the farmers and their families. He wanted to introduce me to Professor Maathai since we were both very passionate about farmers. “Let me call her now, so you can say ‘Hi’,” he said. He dialed her number and got a busy signal. My heart fell. “I will try again later,” he promised, but the meeting was coming to an end and I soon forgot about the call.
It was a sad day indeed on September 25 when I learned that she had passed away, robbing me and many others of the chance to know her. I cried as I remembered her sacrifices. Who would have thought that the simple act of planting a tree would cause an environmental and human rights revolution that would affect a nation, a continent, and the world. I called my co-owners and we jointly decided to start a commemorative line of teas called “Teas 4 Trees” in her honor and agreed that a percentage of the proceeds would be donated to the environmental initiatives of the small-scale tea farmers.
Our first tea in this line is Royal Golden Safari, aptly named by Shirlene Davis, our Chief of Staff and owner. The tea is a tippy golden orthodox black tea that, in Jane Pettigrew’s words, is “an orthodox black tea full of large golden buds and lightly rolled russet-brown leaves. The aroma of the wet leaf is sweet with the fruitiness of ripening plums and the liquor is light, fragrant and delicate.” The name “Royal” is given because Wangari Maathai was regal in all senses of the word and was the “queen of the trees,” “Golden” for the tea’s hue, and “Safari” is “journey” in Swahili. Wangari’s physical journey has come to an end, but, like the fig tree that my grandfather told me about, her work and contributions to human society spread like the branches of a tree and reaches out to touch the ends of the earth through her Green Belt Movement. Her children and grandchildren will no doubt continue her legacy, as will Royal Tea of Kenya – the first fruits of this amazing woman’s contribution to a harvest of environmentally conscious dreamers like myself. I finally understood why my grandfather spent a whole afternoon talking to me about the trees and the land.
All photographs are courtesy of the Green Belt Movement organization.