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Another shade of green

Lauded as both ”legend” and ”prophet” in the Kenyan media, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize continued to command world attention last week.

Even Professor Wangari Maathai’s former enemies emerged to praise her lifelong promotion of sustainable development, democracy and human rights. Environmentalists across the globe fêted her Green Belt Movement for fighting the destruction of forests in East and Central Africa since 1977.

But Aids activists, health NGOs and small-scale farmers in Kenya considered the honour bestowed upon the country’s assistant minister of the environment with mixed feelings.

Nicknamed ”The Iron Lady of Kenya” — and not always with respect and affection — Maathai (64) rose to prominence in 1989 when she led activists in successfully opposing the erection of a 62-storey building and 24-metre statue of then president Daniel arap Moi in Uhuru Park — the only significant greenery remaining in the polluted, congested centre of Nairobi. For her efforts, she was teargassed, beaten unconscious, jailed and threatened with circumcision and death.

But, instead of breaking her, the persecution strengthened Maathai’s resolve to save the trees, rivers and mountains — ”things no one else thinks about, but that are essential to human existence”, she said.

While saluting her ”incredible bravery” and saying she deserved the $1,36-million accolade, local and international groups have voiced grave misgivings about Maathai’s views on Aids — and the weight it will carry now that she is a Nobel laureate.

Maathai believes ”evil Western” scientists created Aids as a ”biological weapon to wipe out blacks”.

She told the Mail & Guardian: ”I stand by my comments … even though I have no proof.”

Maathai, who has a doctorate in biological sciences and a master’s degree in science, also stood by statements made at a conference in Nairobi in August where she questioned the reliability of condoms in preventing HIV transmission: ”If a doctor operating on HIV/Aids infected patients puts on three pairs of gloves when operating, how is just one condom expected to prevent the disease?” Maathai asked an uncomfortable audience.

Only one local newspaper — in a short paragraph — reported her utterances, which soon faded into obscurity.

”When she first made the comments, we were shocked that they were coming from a person like her.

”So we left it; we didn’t react,” a source who attended the conference disclosed. ”But, now that she’s won the Nobel Peace Prize, whatever she’s said in the past and whatever she’ll say in the future will carry greater authority — which is good news for the ‘greens’, but bad news for the mainstream Aids community.”

But, unlike most sources who weren’t willing to put their names to their criticism for fear of souring Kenya’s — and Africa’s — victory, the director of the Kenya Network of Women with HIV/Aids, Asunta Wagura, said Maathai’s statements had ”masked” the ”true danger” inherent in her beliefs.

”Okay, let’s accept [Aids] was formulated in a lab by mad white scientists as a tool of genocide to wipe out black people. The fact remains, it is here and it is killing millions. So the question to ask now is not: Where did it come from? The question is: How do we stop it?

”There is no vaccine … and if this woman, who is now a Nobel Peace Prize-winner — a position of total respect and credibility — is saying condoms can’t be trusted, we are in big trouble,” said Wagura.

Maathai has also insisted that thousands of smallholder ”shamba” farmers in Kenya be removed from the country’s forests.

Sources in Kenya’s Ministry of the Environment said she’d threatened to resign the day before her Nobel Prize was announced last Friday — in protest at Environment Minister Kalonzo Musyoka’s decision to reverse a ban on farming in the forests.

In her battle to end ”degrading” agriculture in forests, Maathai is up against a respected former political prisoner, MP Koigi wa Wamwere, who argued that Maathai considered animals and trees more important than humans.

”Her Green Belt Movement wants to be the only tree planters in the country. I think Maathai is blinded by self-interest.

”Who’s thinking of the poor people she wants kicked out of the forests? Where must they go?” asked Wamwere, emphasising that as long as they practiced ”sustainable” agriculture, the farmers should remain in the forests.

Contained in the sudden criticism is an ominous warning for Maathai that the world is now watching and listening to her and, as Wagura stated: ”She will have to be more careful from now on, because the world loves a winner … but it loves winners who fail even more.”

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Darren Taylor
Darren Taylor is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg. He is a regular contributor to several African and international news organisations.

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