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In Unbowed, Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai recounts her extraordinary journey from her childhood in rural Kenya to the world stage. When Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, she began a vital poor people’s environmental movement, focused on the empowerment of women, that soon spread across Africa. Persevering through run-ins with the Kenyan government and personal losses, and jailed and beaten on numerous occasions, Maathai continued to fight tirelessly to save Kenya’s forests and to restore ...
In Unbowed, Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai recounts her extraordinary journey from her childhood in rural Kenya to the world stage. When Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, she began a vital poor people’s environmental movement, focused on the empowerment of women, that soon spread across Africa. Persevering through run-ins with the Kenyan government and personal losses, and jailed and beaten on numerous occasions, Maathai continued to fight tirelessly to save Kenya’s forests and to restore democracy to her beloved country. Infused with her unique luminosity of spirit, Wangari Maathai’s remarkable story of courage, faith, and the power of persistence is destined to inspire generations to come.
I was born the third of six children, and the first girl after two sons, on April 1, 1940, in the small village of Ihithe in the central highlands of what was then British Kenya. My grandparents and parents were also born in this region near the provincial capital of Nyeri, in the foothills of the Aberdare Mountain Range. To the north, jutting into the sky, is Mount Kenya.
Two weeks into mbura ya njahi, the season of the long rains, my mother delivered me at home in a traditional mud-walled house with no electricity or running water. She was assisted by a local midwife as well as women family members and friends. My parents were peasant farmers, members of the Kikuyu community, one of forty-two ethnic groups in Kenya and then, as now, the most populous. They lived from the soil and also kept cattle, goats, and sheep.
At the time of my birth, the land around Ihithe was still lush, green, and fertile. The seasons were so regular that you could almost predict that the long, monsoon rains would start falling in mid-March. In July you knew it would be so foggy you would not be able to see ten feet in front of you, and so cold in the morning that the grass would be silvery-white with frost. In Kikuyu, July is known as mworia nyoni, the month when birds rot, because birds would freeze to death and fall from the trees.
We lived in a land abundant with shrubs, creepers, ferns, and trees, like the mitundu, mukeu, and migumo, some of which produced berries and nuts. Because rain fell regularly and reliably, clean drinking water was everywhere. There were large well-watered fields of maize, beans, wheat, and vegetables. Hunger was virtually unknown. The soil was rich, dark red-brown, and moist.
When a baby joined the community, a beautiful and practical ritual followed that introduced the infant to the land of the ancestors and conserved a world of plenty and good that came from that soil. Shortly after the child was born, a few of the women attending the birth would go to their farms and harvest a bunch of bananas, full, green, and whole. If any of the bananas had ripened and birds had eaten them, the women would have to find another full bunch. The fullness expressed wholeness and wellness, qualities the community valued. Along with the bananas, the women would bring to the new mother’s house sweet potatoes from her and their gardens and blue-purple sugarcane (kigwa kia nyamuiru). No ordinary sugarcane would do.
In anticipation of the birth, the expectant mother would fatten a lamb that slept and ate inside her home. While the women were gathered the ritual foods, the child’s father would sacrifice the lamb and roast a piece of the flesh. The bananas and the potatoes would also be roasted and along with the meat and the raw sugarcane given to the new mother. She would chew small pieces of each in turn and then put some of the juice into the baby’s tiny mouth. This would have been my first meal. Even before breast milk, I would have swallowed the juice of green bananas, blue-purple sugarcane, sweet potatoes, and a fattened lamb, all fruits of the local land. I am as much a child of my native soil as I am of my father, Muta Njugi, and my mother, Wanjiru Kibicho, who was more familiarly known by her Christian name, Lydia. Following the Kikuyu tradition, my parents named me for my father’s mother, Wangari, an old Kikuyu name.
According to the Kikuyu myth of origin, God created the primordial parents, Gikuyu and Mumbi, and from Mount Kenya showed them the land on which they were to settle: west from Mount Kenya to the Aberdares, on to Ngong Hills and Kilimambogo, then north to Garbatula. Together, Gikuyu and Mumbi had ten daughters—Wanjiru, Wambui, Wangari, Wanjiku, Wangui, Wangeci, Wanjeri, Nyambura, Wairimu, and Wamuyu—but they had no sons. The legend goes that, when the time came for the daughters to marry, Gikuyu prayed to God under a holy fig tree, mËœugumo, as was his tradition, to send him sons-in-law. God told him to instruct nine of his daughters—the tenth was too young to be married—to go into the forest and to each cut a stick as long as she was tall. When the daughters returned, Gikuyu took the sticks and with them built an altar under the migumo tree, on which he sacrificed a lamb. As the fire was consuming the lamb’s body, nine men appeared and walked out of the flames.
Gikuyu took them home and each daughter married the man who was the same height as she was, and together they gave rise to the ten clans to which all Kikuyus belong. (Even though the youngest daughter, Wamuyu, did not get married, she did have children.) Each clan is known for a particular trade or quality, such as prophecy, craftsmanship, and medicine. My clan, Anjiru, is associated with leadership. The daughters made the clans matrilineal, but many privileges, such as inheritance and ownership of land, livestock, and perennial crops, were gradually transferred to men. It is not explained how women lost their rights and privileges.
For the Kikuyus, Mount Kenya, known as Kirinyaga, or Place of Brightness, and the second-highest peak in Africa, was a sacred place. Everything good came from it: abundant rains, rivers, streams, clean drinking water. Whether they were praying, burying their dead, or performing sacrifices, Kikuyus faced Mount Kenya, and when they built their houses, they made sure the doors looked toward it. As long as the mountain stood, people believed that God was with them and that they would want for nothing. Clouds that regularly shrouded Mount Kenya were often followed by rain. As long as the rains fell, people had more than enough food for themselves, plentiful livestock, and peace.
Sadly, these beliefs and traditions have now virtually died away. They were dying even as I was born. When European missionaries came to the central highlands at the end of the nineteenth cen- tury, they taught the local people that God did not dwell on Mount Kenya, but rather in heaven, a place above the clouds. The proper place to worship him was in church on Sundays, a concept that was unknown to Kikuyus. Nevertheless, many people accepted the missionaries’ worldview, and within two generations they lost respect for their own beliefs and traditions. The missionaries were followed by traders and administrators who introduced new methods of exploiting our rich natural resources: logging, clear-cutting native forests, establishing plantations of imported trees, hunting wild- life, and undertaking expansive commercial agriculture. Hallowed landscapes lost their sacredness and were exploited as the local people became insensitive to the destruction, accepting it as a sign of progress.
At just over 17,000 feet above sea level Mount Kenya towers over the central highlands. Although it straddles the Equator, it is topped by glaciers year round. Beholding Mount Kenya for Kikuyus and other communities that live around the mountain—Kambas, Merus, and Embus—must have been awe-inspiring. The story goes that the explorers Johan Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann, upon encountering the mountain in 1849, asked their guide, a member of the Kamba community, who was carrying a gourd, “What do you call that?” Thinking the two Germans were referring to the gourd, he replied, “It’s called kii-nyaa,” pronounced Kenya by the British. This became the name of the mountain and later the country.
Throughout Africa, the Europeans renamed whatever they came across. This created a schism in many Africans’ minds and we are still wrestling with the realities of living in this dual world. At home, we learned the names of mountains, streams, or regions from our parents, but in school we were taught the colonial names, deemed the “proper” names, which we had to use on our exams. The Aberdares, for example, known locally as Nyandarua, or “drying hide,” because of their shape, were named by the British in 1884 after Lord Aberdare, then the head of the Royal Geographical Society.
Naturally, it was many years before I was to understand the complexities of the period. I was born as an old world was passing away. The first Europeans had come to Kenya during the time of my grandparents, in the late 1800s. In 1885, Britain and the other “great powers” of Europe met at the Berlin Conference to formalize what was known as “The Scramble for Africa”—a thirty-year dash to lay claim to the entire continent. With the stroke of a pen on a map they assigned whole regions to the different powers and created completely new nations. In East Africa, Germany received Tanganyika, which later united with Zanzibar to become Tanzania. Britain acquired what became the Kenya colony and the Uganda protectorate. Prior to this superficial partitioning, many communities in Africa had identified themselves as nations, albeit micronations. The resulting countries brought these communities together in arbi- trary ways so that sometimes the new citizens of the post-Berlin nations perceived each other as foreigners. Some micronations found themselves stranded between two neighboring countries. The consequences of these divisions continue to haunt Africa.
My great-grandparents, whom I did not know, lived in a pre- European world. They would probably not have interacted with any other communities outside the central highlands, apart from the Maasais, who are pastoralists, herders of cows and goats. The Maasai traditional way of life required them to transverse the large plains to the west of the highlands, the vast grassland surrounded by ridges resulting from seismic activity that ripped apart the earth’s crust many millions of years ago. The “scar” stretches from Jordan to Mozambique, forming the Great Rift Valley.
At times, Maasais would raid Kikuyu villages, take away their cattle, and kill their young men, and the Kikuyus would do the same to the Maasais. But there were also times of truce, trade in the form of exchange of food, livestock, and land, and even intermarriage. These interethnic links helped cement ties between communities and foster peace. In Nyeri, mixed Maasai and Kikuyu blood was common and never viewed as a stigma. My mother had Maasai blood in her. Like her father, she was lithe, with high cheekbones and straight hair, characteristics more typical of Maasais than Kikuyus. We were told that my great-great-grandmother on my father’s side was a Maasai who was abducted during a raid. When she came to the highlands, she adopted Kikuyu customs and named her second son Muta, after her father. That name was eventually handed down to my father and, later, to my second son.
Throughout the nineteenth century, European missionaries crisscrossed Africa, clearing the way for Christianity. Almost immediately behind them came numerous explorers, adventurers, fortune seekers, and those in the service of the European powers prospecting for riches in Africa (both natural and human) to exploit. In Kenya, the British, perhaps because they did not want local people to receive competing Christian messages from denominations that were already contesting fiercely in Europe, subdivided the country and apportioned different areas to different denominations. Among the Catholics, many different orders were active in Kenya: the Consolata Missionary Sisters from Italy and the Holy Ghost Order and Loreto Sisters from Ireland. Most of the first missionaries in my area were Scottish Presbyterians and Italian Catholics.
The missionaries would generally do their work by visiting villages and attending to peoples’ health needs. They treated particularly stubborn conditions, such as gangrene or difficulties with childbirth, that could not be healed with local remedies like herbs and tree bark, and then established health centers. Initially, the missionaries would instruct small groups of adults in reading—only after they had converted to Christianity—but quite rapidly they established schools. I admire the missionaries’ patience and ingenuity in facilitating communication among people who did not understand one another’s languages. They did their work well.
The art of reading and writing must have hit people like lightning. It must have been extraordinary to them that lines and dots on a page or a slate when taken together could transmit a message that a person many miles away could receive. It must have seemed like a new form of magic that overshadowed what Kikuyus had known until then. Reading and writing fascinated them and they embraced it with a passion.
Before the arrival of the missionaries, Kikuyus and all the Kenyan communities had largely oral cultures. The ways they delivered a message or passed information included the use of drums, horns, shouting, or sending somebody. Among Kikuyus, one interesting form of message transmission and education was gichandi, which was made from a gourd. When you shook it, the beads on strings on the outside and the seeds and stones inside made music. As players or actors shook the gourd, they relayed riddles, proverbs, and other folk wisdom and information. These gourds were also inscribed with symbols and marks that represented a form of writing that these artisans would use for recitations and conveying information.
Ironically, the missionaries described such instruments in detail, but then encouraged the local people who had converted to Christianity to destroy them. Even as they trivialized many aspects of the local culture, including various art forms, they also recorded them and saved some of the artifacts, which now reside in European museums. I have heard that one of these gichandi is in a museum in Turin, Italy.
To consolidate their hold on their new territories in Africa, during the first decade and a half of the twentieth century the European governments encouraged people of European descent—among them South Africans, Australians, Canadians, Britons, Germans—to settle in their colonies. In Kenya, these settlers began arriving in increasing numbers and the British authorities gave them land in the highlands. The settlers found the highlands very attractive for the same reasons the local people do: the soil was fertile, debilitating diseases like malaria were absent, and it was neither too hot nor too cold—perfect weather.
The settlers received title deeds to most of the land in areas where they preferred to settle, near emerging city centers or regions that seemed promising for successful wheat, maize, coffee, and tea farming, and for grazing livestock. To make way for them, many people were displaced, including a large number who were forcibly relocated to the Rift Valley. Those who refused to vacate their land were transported by the British elsewhere.
By the 1930s the British had ensured that native communities, including Kikuyus, had been restricted to designated regions known as native reserves while their land was subdivided among the new arrivals. People within the native reserves were able to keep their land. Ihithe was in the Kikuyu reserve and my father owned land there. Some he had bought and some he inherited from his father, who purchased it when he migrated to Ihithe from Kahiga-ini, a village nearby. After both the First and Second World Wars, war veterans came to Kenya and received land—one of the ways the British government thanked them for defending the crown. By the early 1950s, about 40,000 settlers, most of them British, had moved onto about 2,500 farms in what became known as the “white highlands,” which included the hills outside Nairobi, the highlands of the central and western regions, and large tracts of grassland in the Rift Valley.
However, even after the arrival of missionaries and then the British administration, pockets of the old way of life persisted. Three of my grandparents never converted to Christianity, but I am informed that my mother’s mother was baptized on her deathbed. Their children, however, converted as adults, the first generation of Kikuyus to become almost wholly Christian. They must have been among the early converts of their generation, because when I was growing up, my uncle Kamunya, charismatic and progressive, was already a leader in the African Independent Church. This church embraced both Protestant and Catholic teachings as well as aspects of Kikuyu culture discouraged in the other two denominations.
“Wangari Maathai’s memoir is direct, honest, and beautifully written—a gripping account of modern Africa’s trials and triumphs, a universal story of courage, persistence, and success against great odds in a noble cause.”
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed, an autobiography that offers a message of hope and inspiration through one woman’s achievements on behalf of women, the environment, and democracy in Kenya.
1. In her first chapter, “Beginnings,” Maathai describes the natural environment of her family’s village and the effects of colonial settlement, Christianity, and literacy on the native culture of Kenya. How did the coming of white settlers change the native way of life, particularly in terms of families’ relations to the land, a traditional economy, and education?
2. What aspects of her family life and her mother’s approach to childrearing, as described in “Beginnings,” might have nurtured Wangari’s strong, forthright, and optimistic character? How powerful was the effect of cultivating the soil on her imagination as a child?
3. Because her education was in English (and later provided her entry to the Kenyan professional elite) it had the potential to separate her from people who spoke the native languages of Kenya, and to be seen as “a white woman in a black skin” [p. 110]. How does she feel about this problem, and how did she address the issue of language in the Green Belt Movement [pp. 60, 72]?
4. How does Maathai react, upon arriving in America, to the presence of black Americans [p. 76]? What connection does she make between the legacy of slavery in America and the legacy of colonialism in Kenya [p. 78]? Is it surprising that, in the America of the early 1960s, she wasn’t often the target of racism herself? Was there a similar color barrier in Kenya, prior to independence [p. 100]?
5. In Kenya, Maathai found herself often at the mercy of deeply ingrained tribalism and sexism. What situations stand out most strongly as unjust, and how did she stand up to and try to change the injustices she experienced?
6. Facing the difficulties of department politics at the university, Maathai writes, “I found myself wanting to be more than the equal of some of the men I knew. I had higher aspirations and did not want to be compared with men of lesser ability and capacity. I wanted to be me” [p. 117]. How did her male colleagues at the university react to her ambition and energy?
7. What is particularly African about Maathai’s approach to the environment, and why does the erosion caused by increasing deforestation disturb her so much? Do you see the roots of her feeling for the environment in her childhood? What does the fig tree she loved as a child symbolize for her [p. 122]?
8. Why did Maathai decide that tree planting as a community action is particularly suited to women in rural areas? What effect did it have on the lives of the women who got involved?
9. Regarding her marriage, Maathai says, “Nobody told me that men would be threatened by the high academic achievements of women like me. . . . It was an unspoken problem that I and not my husband had a Ph.D. and taught in the university” [p. 139]. In the divorce trial, her husband tells the court that she was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn, and too hard to control” [p. 146]. How does she deal with these accusations and with the end of her marriage?
10. How does Maathai come to realize that activism must be grounded in the community, and that communication must be at a level all members of the community can understand [p. 133]? Why is she so effective in reaching out to poor and illiterate rural women through the Green Belt Movement [pp.135–38]?
11. Regarding the Uhuru Park struggle, Maathai says people “were amazed not only that one relatively insignificant woman could stop a large project that those in power wanted to see completed, but astonished that it could be done only a year after we had watched in despair as losers of an election were declared the winners. . . . To me, this was the beginning of the end of Kenya as a one-party state” [p. 204–205]. Why was this a promising sign of change for her?
12. Reflecting on her time in prison for treason, Maathai says, “As I sat in those cells, denying me the ability to control what happened seemed to me to be the greatest punishment the regime could mete out to me” [p. 214]. Discuss the ways she responds to adversity and to the failure, at times, of her hopes [pp.154, 164]. Which aspects of her character allow her to be so effective in fighting back against the corrupt government and encouraging others to insist upon their rights?
13. “Throughout my life,” Maathai writes, “I have never stopped to strategize about my next steps. I often just keep walking along, through whichever door opens. I have been on a journey and this journey has never stopped” [p. 286]. Given the biblical story she recounts, why is “Rise Up and Walk” (Acts 3:1–10) an apt choice for her campaign slogan?
14. Maathai became increasingly known to and engaged with Western women’s groups, environmental groups, and NGOs that could provide her with support and publicity. Why was her decision to create and nurture such relationships abroad so crucial to her struggle?
15. Considering how little experience Maathai had in political matters, she used the press brilliantly to the advantage of her various causes, as well as for her own protection. Why was the press—particularly American and European papers—so important in keeping the hopes for progress alive in the face of a corrupt government during this period?
16. What was particularly effective about the encampment of mothers in Uhuru Park in an effort to free political prisoners? What principle is at work in this particular action? Is it surprising that the government took so long to free the prisoners?
17. What might be the reason Maathai provides so little detail about her family life or personal life after her divorce?
18. Maathai writes about being particularly devastated by the death of her mother [pp. 274–76], and earlier describes her relationships with her mother and grandmother when she was a child [pp. 13, 36–37]. Virginia Woolf wrote, “we think back through our mothers if we are women.” How does this idea apply to Maathai and her decision to work to improve the lives of women?
Posted September 19, 2006
Professor Wangari Maathai is truly one of the most important voices of our time. This dynamic and indefatigable Kikuyu woman of Kenya has illuminated rays of light through the dark clouds of Kenya, and so Africa. Standing in the face or oppression and unbearable adversity that she faced when Kenya was not a land of freedom, but a state of oppression and discord, it was Wangari¿s resilient voice, her never-ending effort to stand strong in the winds of injustice, and her ceaseless love of mankind that has in many ways begun the great changes toward democracy and freedom for all individuals not just in Kenya, but in Africa. As the Cold War has, as Professor Maathai clearly and carefully points out, changed the dynamics of government in Africa, the reader becomes aware, in a different way than what is typically presented in the press, of the many issues involved with the challenges that the world faces through the daily experiences of those who seek `Freedom¿. Clearly, as the world becomes closer and more connected, the issues that continue in Africa are critical issues that we, as a progressive society, must not simply acknowledge, but do something about. Acting on what is right . . . standing up for your beliefs . . . standing down oppression and hatred . . . and nurturing Mother Earth as she continues to nurture and provide for all, are themes this visionary East and Central African woman who is the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize shares with the world in her brilliantly written life story. Readers across the world will tap into the determination of this extraordinary activist . . . who has taught so many about how love of each other can begin with love on the land we live on. But there is so much more to `Unbowed¿: Uhuru Park ¿ Freedom Park ¿ is more than a rolling green field in the middle of Nairobi, it is more than a starting point for this wonderful woman¿s love affair with the world, and it is so much more than a gathering point where the notion of planting trees . . . the seeds of The Green Belt Movement occurred. `Unbowed¿ is the story of a magnificent and courageous leader who stood up for the oppressed, including the woman of Kenya, and provided hope for better tomorrows by demonstrating that if a person possesses a will to make change, change can and will occur. `Unbowed¿ is a most remarkable memoir . . . and Professor Wangari Maathai is an ingenious woman of dignity the world continues to learn from.
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Posted November 26, 2014
Excellent book by an amazing woman! Good for addressing gender roles, the environment, politics, manipulation, and perseverance. This is an inspiring book I would recommend to all. I was downright giddy that I had coincidentally planted a tree about three days before I begin reading this book. Now I feel even more proud about planting that tree and all that it can stand for in this world!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 25, 2014
Posted August 21, 2012
Posted August 21, 2012
I needed this book for my college class, women's perspective, and I thought this book was really good.
This book is also good. I don't want to recommend in a CD format but hardcover... I liked this book better because it's more current than unbowed. Both books are great though.Between Two Worlds
by Zainab Salbi
Posted November 12, 2010
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