Unbowed: One Woman’s Story, by Wangari Maathai
Published by Arrow, 6th March 2008 (first published 3rd October 2006)
Genres: Nonfiction, autobiography, memoir
Wangari Maathai was born in 1940 in a small village in the highlands of Northern Kenya. Even from a young age, she stood out amongst her peers, as she pursued her education with determination. When the opportunity arose for a scholarship at an American university, through President Kennedy’s Airlift Program, she jumped at the chance.
Upon returning to Kenya with her Master’s degree, she became the first woman in her country to earn a PhD and to later head a university department. During her time at the university, she was steadfast and determined in her pursuit of equal rights and pay for herself and her fellow female employees. This was to set her on a path she never foresaw or looked for.
In the face of a poverty crisis in Kenya, she established the Green Belt Movement, which was responsible for the planting of millions of trees throughout the country. Despite threats and confrontations with the ruling government and many other organisations, she was unbowed and refused to back down. Her work with the Green Belt Movement, as well as her fearless fight for democracy, was recognised in 2004 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was the first African woman to receive this honour.
Wangari Maathai’s story is incredible, but she tells it in a very simple and humble way. She relates her childhood experiences and memories without shame. She describes her many struggles with the government and people in positions of power, but without anger or arrogance. Maathai is utterly charming and I can see how she succeeded in inspiring many people throughout the world, but especially the women of Kenya.
The Green Belt Movement was originally about planting trees and re-establishing biodiversity in Kenya as a way to combat such issues as malnutrition, soil poverty and lack of firewood. But it became a vehicle for the empowerment, of both rural women and men. It was also on the frontline of the fight for democracy in Kenya after years of totalitarian rule. But again, Maathai’s descriptions of these achievements are very modest.
It is clear that she was a singularly determined and courageous woman. Even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles like the loss of her home, or of the Green Belt Movement headquarters, she just forged on. At great personal risk, she undertook protests and demonstrations and simply refused to back down. She is a truly inspiring woman and I found her story really moving.
Her ambition to restore the biodiversity of her beloved Kenyan highlands is still, if not more, relevant today. We are facing such problems on a global scale today, and a lot could be learned from the “simple” act of planting trees.
I came to understand that when the environment is destroyed, plundered or mismanaged, we undermine our quality of life and that of future generations.
This quote from Maathai’s Nobel Prize Lecture resonates with me as we are facing the consequences of our wanton abuse of our planet home. Having read David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet earlier this year, I found many similarities with his dream of “re-wilding” the Earth.
I picked this book out for my Reading Women Challenge 2021, for the prompt of a book about a woman in politics. And I am so glad I did because otherwise, I don’t think that I would have naturally come across the story of this inspirational woman.
My rating: 4/5