UNBOWED

A Memoir

Wangari Maathai

Born in a rural village in 1940, Wangari Maathai left at a young age to be educated in a school run by Catholic missionaries, and went on to receive her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the United States. Returning to Kenya, she became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in East and Central Africa and to head the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi. In Unbowed, she recounts the political and personal beliefs that led her, in 1977, to establish the Green Belt Movement, which spread from Kenya across Africa, helping to restore indigenous forests while assisting rural women by paying them to plant trees in their villages.

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Born in a rural village in 1940, Wangari Maathai left at a young age to be educated in a school run by Catholic missionaries, and went on to receive her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the United States. Returning to Kenya, she became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in East and Central Africa and to head the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi. In Unbowed, she recounts the political and personal beliefs that led her, in 1977, to establish the Green Belt Movement, which spread from Kenya across Africa, helping to restore indigenous forests while assisting rural women by paying them to plant trees in their villages. Over the course of many years, Maathai’s extraordinary courage and determination helped transform Kenya’s government into the democracy in which she now serves as a member of Parliament. In 2004 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her “contribution to sustainable development, human rights, and peace.”

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  • Anchor Books
  • Paperback
  • September 2007
  • 368 Pages
  • 9780307275202

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About Wangari Maathai

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1940. She is the founder of the Green Belt Movement, which, through networks of rural women, has planted over forty million trees across Kenya since 1977. In 2002, she was elected to Kenya’s parliament in the first free elections in a generation, and in 2003, she was appointed assistant minister for the environment. She lives and works in Nairobi.

Praise

A “gripping*” memoir by the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

“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.” —*President Bill Clinton

Discussion Questions

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?

How does Maathai react, upon arriving in America, to the presence of black Americans? What connection does she make between the legacy of slavery in America and the legacy of colonialism in Kenya? 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?

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.” How did her male colleagues at the university react to her ambition and energy?

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?

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? Why is she so effective in reaching out to poor and illiterate rural women in the tree-planting program?

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.” Discuss the ways she responds to adversity and to the failure, at times, of her hopes. 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?