BOOK REVIEW: Unbowed by Wangari Maathai

In Unbowed, Wangari Maathai offers an inspiring message of hope and prosperity through self-sufficiency.


Unbowed is a straightforward memoir of what Wangari Maathai faced in a Kenya that had no tolerance for anything other than quiet girls, quiet matrons, and quiet grandmothers. The first Kenyan woman to earn a Ph.D., Maathai’s professional status and personal life suffered from the gender norms of 1970s Kenya.

Wangari Maathai fought for equal pay and to be taken seriously by her peers. Her marriage crumbled, due in part, she says, to her husband’s inability to handle a strong wife. She endured a humiliating public divorce. She was repeatedly arrested and, in one harrowing sequence in Unbowed, forced to barricade herself inside her house and wait for the police to cut through burglar bars with borrowed army equipment and arrest her.

Kenya has very little indigenous forests remaining, and trees are often hacked down to provide wood for charcoal, to clear land for agriculture, or to provide a place for the poor and landless (they are legion) to squat. Maathai’s passion is to heal the scarred Kenyan landscape, which no longer resembles the green highlands she grew up in.

Her tree planting first began as a commercial venture (she set up an unsuccessful business to sell trees from a nursery in her backyard) and changed into a nonprofit project. As she recounts in Unbowed, planting trees was, for her, a way to improve the lives of rural women by paying them for planting and tending to trees while tackling the alarming rate of deforestation. With support from Norwegian donors, Maathai became the full-time coordinator of the Green Belt Movement that she founded in 1982 and expanded her work.

In this book, she skims over the tremendous work that must have gone into building an extensive rural enterprise that involved nurseries in remote areas and cash payments for people who planted forests.

The tree planting became overtly political when the Green Belt Movement opposed the grabbing of public land by officials, who would often pass out choice parcels to political cronies or family members. Maathai points out that rewarding individuals with public land actually began with the British colonialists — much of the most productive agricultural land in Kenya changed hands in just this way.

Unfortunately, this is one legacy that won’t die. Under the Moi regime, and even today, politicians hive off land held in public trust and give it to private interests. The Green Belt Movement fought this by planting trees on public land scheduled for private development, then using the media to draw attention to their efforts and to the land in peril.

In 1989, Maathai learned of a plan to build a Ksh. 20 billion skyscraper and business complex in the middle of Uhuru Park, one of the few open spaces left in a place once called “The City in the Sun” and now more often called “Nairobbery.”  Maathai began a campaign to draw attention to this encroachment on Uhuru Park, pitting herself squarely against then powerful president Moi who had authorized the project.

Due to Maathai’s passionate appeals to local and international press, and to the concern expressed by the U.N. Environment Program and other donor groups based in Nairobi, the project was eventually stopped. Unbowed suggests that Maathai’s ties to an international network of women’s and environmental groups not only stopped the paving of Uhuru Park; it also possibly protected her life. The regime could arrest and harass her, but it knew that many people in the Western world cared about Maathai’s work.

Not that her life was untouched by risk and violence. In one memorable episode, Maathai recalls sneaking into Karura Forest in northern Nairobi through a back way, forcing through a cold stream, and planting trees on a forest site given over to private developers. The police placed there to protect the land against vicious people armed with tree seedlings let her go that time, but, on a subsequent visit, hired thugs with sticks beat her badly enough to send her to the hospital.

The struggles over Uhuru Park and Karura Forest turned the simple act of tree planting into a political act, part of a pitched battle to save Kenya’s public land from private use. Maathai became even more political when, after a failed run for the presidency in 1997, she became a parliamentarian for her home region of Tetu. In 2003, President Mwai Kibaki, who succeeded Moi, appointed her assistant minister of environment and natural resources. She continued to hold that position, even after winning the Nobel.

Reading Unbowed, one gets the sense that no global prize, no matter how prestigious, can match for Maathai the victory of finally being accepted in her homeland for who she is. She will forever be remembered as a Shujaa.

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