When Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, questions were raised regarding her choice by the Nobel Committee. Why should an environmentalist receive a prize that was identified with peace and human rights, voiced the critics. Reading Maathai's memoir sets the record straight, and justifying her selection for the award. In this fascinating and very personal account, she paints a vivid picture of her life, embedded in the realities of Kenya before and since independence. Her experiences during the Moi regime, in particular, demonstrate the challenges a young educated woman confronted in the face of traditional prejudice as well as political oppression.
Raised in rural Kenya, Wangari Maathai never lost the deep connection with the land and its the natural beauty. Over the years, she noticed the changes and the increasing fragility of the environment. Trees for her became a symbol and a tool for protecting the vulnerable ecosystem and assisting rural population to stem the growing poverty.
Thanks to the intervention of her older brother and the support of her mother, she was able to attend school beyond the primary level, which was all girls at the time could reach for. As luck had it and, being a bright student, her convent school was one of those selected to send graduates to the US under what became known as the Kennedy Airlift: a program to send young Africans to American colleges for further education. These young people were being primed to become future leaders of their societies in the soon to be independent African states. Maathai returned to Kenya with a Master's degree in biology, a subject that for her combined her scientific interests with her deep love for her natural environment. She was encouraged in her research and added a PhD in veterinary medicine to her record. Life should have been easy after that with a good husband, a blossoming academic career and three wonderful kids. But women in Kenya were not supposed to be independent and strong. Her fight for women's equal rights broadened her environmental commitments. Eventually she lost her academic position, her husband divorced her and she ended up as poor as she was a child. Not deterred by the adversities she was facing, she continued fighting on several fronts. She started the Greenbelt Movement to plant trees to reclaim the land as a campaign for and with rural women. Over time it gained such prominence that it was perceived as a threat by the authorities. Public show of opposition, such as the demonstrations to save Uhuru Park in Nairobi from President-friendly developers, increasingly identified Maathai and the Greenbelt Movement as a focus for opposition forces. They fought for human rights and dignity, anti-tribalism and democracy. The details of these struggles, the friendships and solidarity that Maathai experienced, both in Kenya in internationally, supported her morally and probably saved her life more than once.
Maathai's memoir is very personal and written from the heart. We get to know her thinking and feelings as well as a detailed description of the difficult life women and men who opposed the Moi regime faced. Her easygoing and conversational style softens the impact of her description of the arduous and sometimes even brutal experiences that she relays. At the same time, her story is a stirring example of how one person's strength and perseverance can make a difference to a people and the world. The Greenbelt Movement is now a motor for tree planting around Africa and beyond. This is an inspirational book as well as a historical record. Reading it will make you feel enriched. [Friederike Knabe]
Professor Wangari Maathai is truly one of the most important voices of our time. This dynamic and indefatigable Kikuyu woman of Kenya has illuminated rays of light through the dark clouds of Kenya, and so Africa. Standing in the face of oppression and unbearable adversity she faced when Kenya was not a land of freedom, but a state of oppression and discord, it was Wangari's resilient voice, her never-ending effort to stand strong in the winds of injustice, and her ceaseless love of mankind that has in many ways begun the great changes toward democracy and freedom for all individuals not just in Kenya, but in Africa. As the Cold War has, as Professor Maathai clearly and carefully points out, changed the dynamics of government in Africa, the reader becomes aware, in a different way than what is typically presented in the press, of the many issues involved with the challenges that the world faces through the daily experiences of those who seek `Freedom'. Clearly, as the world becomes closer and more connected, the issues that continue in Africa are critical issues that we, as a progressive society, must not simply acknowledge, but do something about. Acting on what is right . . . standing up for your beliefs . . . standing down oppression and hatred . . . and nurturing Mother Earth as she continues to nurture and provide for all, are themes this visionary African woman - who is the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize - shares with the world in her brilliantly written life story. Readers across the world - men and women of all colors and creeds and beliefs will tap into the determination of this extraordinary activist who has taught so many about how love of each other can grow through respecting and nurturing the land we live on. But there is so much more to `Unbowed': Uhuru Park - Freedom Park - is more than a rolling green field in the middle of busy Nairobi, it is more than a starting point for this wonderful woman's love affair with the world, and it is so much more than a gathering point where the notion of planting trees . . . the seeds of The Green Belt Movement occurred. As Professor Maathai has shown through her own life, `Uhuru' is not Free! `Unbowed' is the story of a magnificent and courageous leader who stood up for the oppressed, including the woman of Kenya, and provided hope for better tomorrows by demonstrating that if a person possesses a will to make change, change can and will occur. `Unbowed' is a most remarkable memoir . . . and Professor Wangari Maathai is an ingenious woman of dignity the world continues to learn from. Listen: no matter where you are from, this book will positively change your life.