Women leaders are plentiful at the ongoing Conference of Parties (COP 17) meeting in Durban, South Africa, standing at the forefront in climate change discussions. For example, UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres and South Africa's Minister of Foreign Affairs and President of COP 17, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, to name just couple. However, there is one woman whose absence at this important meeting is glaring. It's safe to say, had she still been alive, Africa's first female Nobel Laureate for Peace, the late Professor Wangari Maathai, would have been raising her voice this week in Durban.
At a parallel event held in Nairobi on Tuesday, Kenyan women, led by the Kenyan Women Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA) and other civil society groups, commemorated Maathai's life. The women congregated at the Freedom Corner at Uhuru Park in Nairobi at an event themed, "Greening politics through Wangari's vision: It is time to unify Kenya."
Women from the 47 counties that form the devolved government in the new constitutional dispensation, together with women from 30 civil society organisations, planted trees in 71 sites identified by the Kenya Forestry Service, to mark her age at the time of her death. Women leaders such as presidential hopeful Martha Karua and the Maendeleo ya Wanawake Chair Rukia Subow were among those present
The park holds a special place in Wangari Maathai's legacy. She was instrumental in securing its existence when the Government of the time wanted to build a skyscraper on the grounds. She publicly contested with the executive, leading the former President to disparagingly remark, "can't the women reign in one of their own?"
Uhuru Park has witnessed more than its share of history. Freedom Corner is the site where Maathai led mothers of political prisoners and other sympathisers in a hunger strike to push for the release of their sons. Following Kenya's historic 2002 elections, it is where President Moi, who had ruled for 24 years, handed over the mantle to Kibaki, and the very place where Kenya's ‘new' constitution was promulgated on 27 August last year. Sadly, Uhuru Park was also the site of the State burial that the Kenyan Government held in Wangari Maathai's honour after she died of cervical cancer in September this year.
The park is symbolic of the type of leaders we need. We need leaders who are conscious of the needs for green energy and to preserve our environment for future generations, leaders who have the courage to participate fully in climate change negotiations to ensure a better world and the mitigation of climate change.
Speaking at the event on behalf of Maathai's family, Beatrice Ngendo gave a speech laden with emotion at Tuesday's commemoration. .
"As Wangari's family, the emotions of losing a mother cannot be expressed in words. Nevertheless, we are very grateful to you, the women of Kenya, for all the support you have given us. Even though our dear mother is not here, you are and have been with us through this," said Ngendo.
"Wangari condemned those destroying the trees that we have planted. We urge you to help the Greenbelt movement to help us follow our dreams," she said, urging the women to continue supporting Maathai's conservation efforts through the organisation she founded.
Rachel Kagoiya is a young Kenyan woman attending COP17. In her view, had Maathai been here, she would have been happy to see the meeting come back to Africa. The last time Africa hosted the conference was in 2006 in Nairobi, when many did not view climate change as a real issue.
"She would have said it is a good thing we are here on African soil. It is an opportune time for us Africans to pick it up and say climate change is real - it is impacting on our livelihoods and we need to work together to deal with it."
For Kagoiya, Maathai would have played the referee role she attempted to play in the early days of multiparty democracy in Kenya, where she called on the opposition presidential candidates to unite and consolidate votes to win the election against the incumbent. According to Kagoiya, she would have said "We are people, it's our planet, let's save it."
Esther Kagure, a lecturer and PhD candidate in Climate Change and Tourism from Kenyatta University, also a delegate at COP 17, agrees that Maathai''s vision would have been one of uniting the parties. Kagure argues that she would have called for all stakeholders to work together and save the world TODAY.
"If we don't conserve today, from tomorrow wildlife, biodiversity and our livelihoods will be lost," she says, sharing her take on what Maathai's vision at COP 17 would have been.
These women hint at what the talks should focus on, not what powers one has, who has started polluting the environment, or who should pay the price, but how to ensure mitigation and cooperation despite our differences. It is for the common good of the global community to deal with the issue before it gets even more out of hand.
From Wangari Maathai, we learned that in our own small ways, we can each do something, however small to contribute to environmental conservation. Quoting from the Hummingbird, an animated oral narrative that she did, Professor Maria Nzomo of the National Council of Women of Kenya said at Uhuru Park, "The Hummingbird was in the forest when the fire broke out. It decided to do something about it. It carried bits of water in her beak to put out the fires as the other animals mocked her effort.
Nzomo then called for women to do what they can to conserve the environment. "You can make a difference wherever you are by conserving our trees. Let us do the little that we can in the space the universe has provided us," urged Nzomo. "You can be a little hummingbird in your own little way.
Florence Sipalla is a writer with the African Woman and Child Feature Service (AWCFS), she wrote this article at COP17 with the additional reporting by Omwa Ombara. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service and AWCFS special series for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence and COP 17 Conference.
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