Unbowed: A Memoir
by Wangari Maathai
A review by Jan Cottingham
Wangari Maathai of Kenya has endured derision, death threats, imprisonment and beatings -- not so unusual for a Nobel Peace Prize winner. What is most astonishing about Maathai, the first environmentalist
and first African woman to win the prize, is her lifelong refusal to be defined by anyone or anything other than herself.
Maathai, 66, received the prize in 2004 for making a connection between environmental destruction, particularly deforestation, and human conflict. Known by many as the "Tree Lady" and
usually called Professor
Maathai, she has lobbied
not only to reverse environmental degradation but
to put her chronically underemployed countrywomen and countrymen
to work planting trees -- a
project that evolved into the Green
Belt Movement (GBM). The nonprofit's
goal is to plant greenbelts of
trees across Kenya and, eventually,
across several other African countries;
so far, more than 30 million
have taken root.
But the scope of Maathai's activism
has gone far beyond planting trees.
As she writes in Unbowed, she and the
GBM also began to plant ideas in Kenyans, particularly the poor rural
women she first set out to help. Maathai, the first East and Central
African woman to earn a doctorate, educated women both by example and
by teaching about human -- particularly
women's -- rights, democratic space,
and about how much could be
achieved through grassroots efforts. In
no small part due to her efforts,
Kenya, for many years a one-party nation
ruled by one man, has evolved
into a multiparty democracy.
This clear-eyed memoir describes
three acts in the ongoing drama of the
great woman's life: innocence and education,
heartache and determination,
and, ultimately, triumph -- though,
like most triumphs, hers is not free of
personal, everyday sorrows.
movingly of her Edenic
childhood in rural
Africa, the pleasure she
took in education, particularly
and the lessons she
gathered from her college
sojourn in the
United States during the civil and women's
Maathai adored her
mother, the second of
her father's four wives, who, though
illiterate herself, supported the suggestion
by Maathai's older brother
that Wangari attend school along
with her brothers.
love of learning, her curiosity, her pragmatism and her natural
leadership abilities have led her to look beyond
Kenya's -- and the world's -- seemingly intractable
problems. But Maathai's success as an activist and university
professor inspired fear and contempt in her nation's deeply
conservative, male-dominated culture -- so much so that her husband,
with whom she had three children, divorced her, saying, in a possibly
apocryphal quote, that she was "too educated, too strong, too
successful, too stubborn and too hard to control." Maathai (who,
in a gesture of defiance and self-definition, added another
"a" to her married surname of Mathai after the divorce)
doesn't remember his saying that, writing that it was "the
press's expression of what they perceived his sentiments to
Whatever he may have said,
Maathai was, and blessedly remains,
all those things. In her memoir, but
more importantly in her life, she
makes the case that persistence is
courage. She renounces self-pity and
embraces hope, and in the process has
lifted many from despair to dignity.
Jan Cottingham is a freelance journalist
living in Little Rock, Ark.
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