Facebook, Twitter and news stories are abuzz today with news that Wangari Maathai has died. She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1997. The group has planted an estimated 45 million trees in Kenya.

She was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She was 71.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told the Associated Press that Maathai’s death “strikes at the core of our nation’s heart.”

“I join Kenyans and friends of Kenya in mourning the passing of this hero of our national struggles,” Odinga said. “Hers has been heroism easily recognized locally and abroad...Prof Maathai has passed on just when the causes she long fought for were just beginning to get the attention they deserved as threats to the survival of the human race and that of our planet.”

Here’s an excerpt from a piece she wrote in February 2008 for the Washington Post:

For nearly six weeks, Kenya has appeared to be at war with itself. Unfortunately, the fighting has been ethnically charged. Kenyans know that these “tribal clashes” are a beast that can be awakened by politicians, particularly during general elections. Shortly before and after the 1992 elections, violence consumed communities in the Rift Valley. Hundreds, perhaps more, were killed, and thousands were displaced. Many still haven’t returned to their homes.

Even as we struggle to resolve the current crisis, we need to know why these clashes recur. Only then can wounds begin to heal and people look to the future with hope. One main trigger is the inequitable distribution of natural resources in Kenya, especially land. The colonial government forcibly displaced large numbers of Kenyans to make way for settlers. At independence, land changed hands, but issues of ownership and distribution remained. In Kenya’s highly competitive political landscape, land has become the battleground.

Citizens are easily persuaded by politicians who promise land in exchange for votes. If the only way to get that land is to forcibly evict fellow Kenyans, neighbors become the easiest victims. Knowing that such crimes will most likely never be punished encourages the attackers. They deliberately demoralize and traumatize their victims to ensure they don’t return. Prejudices and stereotypes held by different ethnic communities go back a long way and are used to incite resentment and hatred.

The modern African state is essentially a loose collection of tribal homelands or “micro-nationalities.” Kenya has 42: The largest has a population of several million; the smallest, only a few thousand. Political power is determined by these numbers. Tribal clashes in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa reveal the superficial nature of African nation-states. Most African nations were created by retreating European colonial powers that gathered or split the micro-nationalities. The resulting entity was given a name, a flag and a national anthem and handed over to a select group of Western-educated elites, most of them sympathetic to the colonial administration.

For the entire story, go here

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