Book: Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date: 2006
Summary: Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, empowering women to plant trees, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. As she said in the Epilogue, this was the first time that the Nobel Committee recognized a link “between peace, sustainable management of resources, and good governance.”
This book tells the story of her life starting with her childhood in rural colonial Kenya and her education at a Catholic mission school. She went to college as part of the “Kennedy Airlift” that flew six hundred Kenyans to the United States and provided them with scholarships funded by the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation. She got her Ph.D. in Nairobi and taught at the University there in the Veterinary School.
In the 1970s while doing work in rural areas to study ticks that sickened cattle, she began to see that the countryside had changed since she was a child.
While I was in the rural areas outside Nairobi collecting the ticks, I noticed that the rivers would rush down the hillsides and along paths and roads when it rained, and that they were muddy with silt. This was very different from when I was growing up. “That is soil erosion,” I remember thinking to myself. “We must do something about that.” p. 121
She also noticed that the cows and the people were skinny, that they weren’t getting much nourishment from scanty vegetation grown in depleted soils.
By that time she had also become involved in environmental and women’s organizations and all of that came together in the Green Belt Movement. At various times, her work put her in conflict with the powers that be in Kenya and she had to cope with threats, harassment, and jail. Every time the government pushed her to stop, she devised a strategy to continue using her wits, her supporters and friends, and her international connections.
Thoughts: This was our discussion book for our Diversity Book Club last night. Our group was impressed by Wangari Maathai’s determination, creative thinking, and courage. We talked a lot about the value of local culture, story-telling, and the connection to land. We also talked about how all those things get disrupted, sometimes lost, when Europeans come in — whether its in Africa or elsewhere in the world.
I am moved to send a donation to The Green Belt Movement and it turns out this is a good time for it. A UK organization called the Size of Wales is working to protect an area of rainforest the size of Wales. For February only, Size of Wales is matching donations made at The Green Belt Movement’s site. This donation will also count toward an effort to plant a billion trees in honor of Wangari Maathai who died last fall.
Appeal: Our group really enjoyed this book. I think it would please anyone who enjoys twentieth century biographies or has any interest in Africa, post-colonial governance, the environment, or women’s issues.
Have you read this book? What did you think?