activism books environment

Book review: Unbowed, by Wangari Maathai

Africa celebrates Wangari Maathai Day every March, on the same day as Africa Environment Day, in honour of the continent’s first female Nobel Peace Prize Winner. There are particular reasons to note it this year, as it is the tenth anniversary of Maathai’s death and a good time to remember her legacy. With that in mind, I thought I’d re-read and review her 2006 auto-biography, Unbowed.

Born in 1940 into colonial Kenya, Maathai grew up on a farm in the Rift Valley – not far from where I spent my own teenage years. She was lucky to get the education she did, not least because this was the time of the Mau Mau uprising. The British authorities had placed over a million of her fellow Kikuyus in concentration camps in order to try and keep a lid on the movement for independence. (This was the 1950s, the queen was Elizabeth II, and the government still doesn’t like to talk about these things.) Despite being arrested and held in a camp at one point, Maathai retained her freedom and her scholarship to a Catholic high school. From there, she won a place at college in the United States, part of a scheme nicknamed the Kennedy Airlift.

Maathai is best known as a tree planter and environmentalist, but she was also a politician, a civil rights and democracy campaigner, an entrepreneur – and before all of those, a scientist and academic. After the degree in Kansas and a masters in Pittsburgh, she studied for a Phd in Germany and the University of Nairobi, becoming the first East African woman to earn a doctorate. She remained at the university and lectured on veterinary anatomy.

Environmentalism came into Maathai’s life indirectly, a side-interest to a side-interest. Alongside her academic career, she was very involved in the National Council of Women of Kenya. Through their work she came to understand the key factors keeping women in poverty: “As I sat listening to the women talk about water, energy, and nutrition, I could see that everything they lacked depended on the environment.” A focus on land and trees would reverse that degradation, and it would be something that women could do for themselves, not waiting for government action.

This insight would lead to the Green Belt Movement, a women-led organisation that pursued ecological restoration alongside female empowerment. This was years ahead of the language of intersectionality or womanism, but a perfect example of them – an African feminism rooted in family and culture, dedicated to the flourishing of the earth and the community.

While it might sound admirable now, the authorities took a dim view of these activities, especially since her holistic approach naturally led into work on human rights, corruption and democracy. “As long as the Green Belt Movement was perceived as a few women raising seedlings, we didn’t matter to the government” writes Maathai. “But as soon as we began to explain how trees disappear and why it is important for citizens to stand up for their rights – whether environmental, women’s, or human – senior officials and members of Parliament began to take notice.”

Under the repressive one-party regime of President Moi, Maathai’s activities were seditious. She was ruled against by corrupt courts, insulted in the press, and denounced in Parliament. When her organisation was evicted from its offices and blacklisted, she had no choice but to relocate her 80 staff into her own home and garden, where she spent years living in a single room. She was arrested and harassed, hospitalised by police brutality on more than one occasion. She spent time in prison. At times she had to travel around the country in secret, having been warned that she was on an assassination list.

One thing that stayed the government’s hand was the growing attention from abroad. Awards and recognition, invitations to speak at international events, all built up a reputational risk for the authorities. It was only after a change of regime in 2002 that Maathai was finally able to operate without the threat of intimidation and arrest. Two years later she would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

Maathai tells her remarkable story with clear and uncluttered prose, and a generosity towards others. It’s written with humility, a woman who became globally influential but in her own words “never severed my connection to the soil”. It’s a story of determination and strength, of joy and solidarity, and of standing up to greed, corruption and violence with singing and dancing and planting trees.

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