Friday, September 30, 2011



By Jerry Okungu

Nairobi, Kenya

September 27, 2011

Millions of people from all walks of life have grieved for Wangari since her death became known on Monday morning this week. When I first saw a scroll of breaking news on one of the local TV stations I was shocked but soon my shock turned into anger. I was angry with the television station for down playing Wangari’s death and instead gave us a repeat interview of some political upstart who wants to become president! Because I was angry, I began surfing station after station in the hope that I would find some sane station that had started paying attention to Wangari’s death. Unfortunately, I met my disappointment everywhere. It was business as usual in every TV station- the usual boring run of the mill public relations interviews.

As I moved on to international networks in search of the Wangari story, I found CNN and BBC already according it world class coverage, starting with her Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo. Then it dawned on me that I was in Africa, a continent that is slow to register and appreciate its own children. I was angry that only later in the afternoon did we start getting reasonable coverage of Wangari Maathai’s demise.

This dismal initial reaction to Wangari’s death got me thinking of the nascent Kenyan media of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and even the early ‘90s. In that era, newsroom editors were a very nosy lot. They would compete for breaking news even though the news rooms were mainly print media entities that had to deal with insurmountable logistics of printing special editions and distributing them in Nairobi and other parts of Kenya.

I remember clearly how we dealt with the death of Robert Ouko in the early ‘90s and more so the arrest of Nicholas Biwott and Hezekiah Oyugi over Robert Ouko’s death. We had our editions in the afternoon and I personally hired aircrafts from Wilson Airport to distribute copies in Nyanza, Western and Coast regions while we covered Nairobi, Central, Eastern and South Rift by road from Nairobi.

Right now we live in another era, the era of immediacy of the electronic media. One would expect that when an event like the death of Wangari Mathai occurs, our senior editors and reporters would be prepared to handle such event as competently as any international media house would do. Could it be that the newsrooms these days are so young and so inexperienced that they are not capable of handling events such as Wangari’s death? Or is it because, Wangari’s death was not a Sinai slum fire or an ICC trial that we have covered with so much relish?

However, on the second day, NTV gave Wangari Mathai her due recognition by airing footages of various aspects of her public life in a most moving and profound way.

Being the first ever Kenyan to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari’s stature was obviously above all of us on the international scene. To us, Wangari was our Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela combined. As such, his death should have elicited unparalleled emotions even among the media.

Earlier in the week, I had written in this article that the death of Wangari Mathai was phenomenal enough to warrant a number of days of national mourning, the lowering of the Kenyan flag and a state burial. I am happy to note that by Wenesday,the government of Kenya had indeed undertaken to do just that and where possible, arrange for her body to lie in State at Freedom Corner in Uhuru Park to allow as many Kenyans as possible to pay their last respects.

At a personal level, I met Wangari Mathai in 1983 when she along with other strong minded reformers were already a thorn in the flesh of the brutal KANU regime. At that time, I was an active thespian and was busy organizing the Stella Awinja Muka Foundation in honour the brilliant and young Kenyan actress who had died in an accident at Lillian Towers on University Way.

Because Stella was a brilliant Engineering student who also excellent on the stage, I thought it appropriate that Professor Wangari would be the right person to officially launch her Foundation. To my dismay, Wangari accepted the challenge even though my colleagues were worried that her presence at the ceremony at the Kenya National Theatre would put us on a collision course with the KANU regime. Despite protests from my colleagues, I still got her to perform the ceremony.

After that encounter, we kept meeting at many forums especially during my days at the Nation Media Group. Our encounter became more frequent when she joined the Narc Rainbow Coalition during the 2002 elections where we attended numerous rallies together.

When the Narc party won the elections that year and she was appointed Assistant Minister for Environment in 2003, I, like many Kenyans was shocked that with her education, record and experience in matters concerning the environment, any serious government would appoint her an assistant to a person who had no clue to issues of the environment. Little wonder that hardly a year into her position as Assistant Minister, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for Environment. When this happened, many naïve Kenyans imagined that there would be a mini cabinet reshuffle so that she could be appointed a full minister. That did not happen. A few years later, she resigned from that position and concentrated on her world engagement in matters related to global warming.

At a personal level, Wangari Mathai did something that humbled me beyond my imagination. When President Kibaki appointed me along with others as Board Directors of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, Professor Mathai wrote to me personal letter congratulation me for the appointment and got that letter delivered by courier service at KBC. It was little things like these that endeared Wangari to millions of people around the world.

Now that Wangari has left millions of orphaned trees and forests around the globe, her children and thousands of people who worked with her around worldwide, the best tribute this country can pay to Wangari is to name Uhuru Park after her in her memory. Let it be called the Wangari Mathai Uhuru Park.

Good bye our world hero and May the Almighty rest your soul in eternal peace.