Why Berlin may name street after Maathai


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The legacy of Nobel laureate and environmentalist Wangari Maathai continues to be felt six years after her death following a proposal to name a street in Germany after her.

Last week, a jury released results after vetting 196 names that were suggested last year by Berlin residents who wanted the abolition of street names associated with German colonialists.

Prof Maathai’s name was among the six, alongside Miriam Makeba, Yaa Asantewaa, Martin Dibobe, Manga Bell and Queen Nzinga Mbande of the Ndongo and Matamba people of Angola.

All those in the list are Africans who made a name for various reasons, mostly resisting oppression.

Berlin residents want them immortalised by their names being on roads in an area known as the Afrikanische Viertel (African District) in Berlin, a few kilometres from Germany’s Upper House.

The Berliner Zeitung, a German paper, reported that three of the six names will be the first to be considered.

They are Nzinga “of Ndongo and Matamba”, a woman who lived between 1583 and 1663 and was a queen in modern-day Angola; Yaa Asantewaa who lived between 1863 and 1923 and was the Queen Mother of the Ashanti in today’s Ghana; and Martin Dibobe, who had lived in Berlin from 1896 to 1921 and is recognised as having been a pioneer in the fight for black dignity in Germany.

The paper said that the final decision on who will be picked will be made by a district council at a time that has not been specified.

It noted that if the council disagrees on any of the three names, then the three others — Prof Maathai, South African musician Miriam Makeba and Manga Bell, a king in present-day Cameroon — will be considered.

Prof Maathai made history in 2004 by becoming the first African woman to receive the Nobel peace prize “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”.

The founder of the Green Belt Movement, a leading conservation organisation, Prof Maathai died in 2011 aged 71 with a solid reputation that involved standing in the way of President Daniel arap Moi’s projects that threatened the environment.

These include a plan to build a skyscraper at Uhuru Park and attempts to annex parts of Karura forest.

Ms Makeba, who died in 2008, is also known for speaking out against the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. Manga Bell (1873-1914) was the king of the Duala.

The three streets to be re-christened are named after Carl Peters, Adolf Lüderitz and Gustav Nachtigal.

“Peters (1856-1918), the founder of the colony of German East Africa, is still called ‘bloodied hand’ in Tanzania today because of its (the colony’s) brutality.

Lüderitz (1834-1886) laid the foundations for ‘German-South-West Africa’, where he deceived inhabitants of today’s Namibia on land purchase. 

“Nachtigal (1834-1885) was an imperial commissioner for German West Africa for a year. He is known above all as an African explorer who did not become a brutal conqueror,” reported the Berliner Zeitung.

Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB), a German public broadcaster for Berlin and Brandenburg states, reports there are about a dozen street names in Berlin that are related to colonialism or racism.

If the onslaught against such names succeeds and Prof Maathai’s name adorns a street, it will be yet another honour given to her.

Her statue stands tall at the Benedictine College in the United States where she gave a talk in 2007.

“To have a statue of Wangari Maathai on our campus has been a dream for a while, and it is appropriate that it is here in St Scholastica Plaza, where our students will see it and aspire to be like her,” says a statement on the college’s website attributed to Benedictine College president Stephen Minnis in a press statement of June 24, 2014 following the unveiling of the statue.

On Mashujaa Day last year, Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero announced that Forest Road would be renamed Prof Wangari Maathai Road.

The Nairobi County Assembly had in 2015 approved a motion to rename Limuru Road after the Nobel laureate but it appears Dr Kidero thought Forest Road would better fit the bill.

Ms Beryl Okundi, the Director of Public Communications at the Nairobi County government, said on Saturday that the road was renamed “to recognise the role the late Nobel laureate played in safeguarding Nairobi parks and forests”.

“It is good to recognise her work. Without Prof Maathai, land grabbers could have taken Uhuru Park and Karura Forest,” said Ms Okundi.

At Columbia University, also in the US, a tree was planted in her honour in March 2012.

“This new tree will serve as a small reminder of her great accomplishments and her impact on the world,” said the then New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.

Other places named in honour of Prof Maathai include a park in the municipality of San Borja in Lima, Peru. In Addis Ababa, the gardens in front of the African Union headquarters were named after her in 2015.

The proposal to honour the late Kenyan environmentalist was made by Congo during the 25th AU Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Prof Maathai’s family did not immediately respond to our inquiries but Mr Alex Gathii, who was her personal assistant, said such an honour would be impressive.

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