Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Guide
"Wangari Maathai's memoir is direct, honest, and beautifully writtena gripping
account of modern Africa's trials and triumphs, a universal story of courage,
persistence, and success against great odds in a noble cause." Bill Clinton.
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and
author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's conversation
about Wangari Maathai's Unbowed, an autobiography that offers a message
of hope and inspiration through one woman's achievements on behalf of women, the
environment, and democracy in Kenya.
About This Book
In this deeply affecting and inspiring memoir, Wangari Maathai, the winner
of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize and a divorced mother of three, recounts her
extraordinary life as a political activist, feminist, and environmentalist in
Born in a rural village in 1940, Wangari Maathai departed from the usual path of
Kenyan girlhood when she left her village to be educated in boarding schools run
by Catholic missionaries. From there she went on to higher education in the
United States, earning both bachelor's and master's degrees in biological
sciences. Returning to Kenya, she became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in East
and Central Africa and headed the department of veterinary medicine at the
University of Nairobi. Because of her engagement in a variety of progressive
political causes, she increasingly found herself the target of harassment by
then Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi's brutal regime.
She was jailed several times, and wounded in attacks by the police.
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 mobilizing rural communities,
particularly women, by offering them a small compensation 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 real democracy it
is today and in which she has served as assistant minister for the environment
and continues to serve 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."
In her first chapter, "Beginnings," Maathai describes the natural
environment of her family's village and the effects of colonial settlement,
Christianity, and literacy on the native culture of Kenya. How did the coming of
white settlers change the native way of life, particularly in terms of families'
relations to the land, a traditional economy, and education?
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?
Because her education was in English (and later provided her entry to the
Kenyan professional elite) it had the potential to separate her from people who
spoke the native languages of Kenya, and to be seen as "a white woman in a black
skin" [p. 110]. How does she feel about this problem, and how did she address
the issue of language in the Green Belt Movement [pp. 60, 72]?
How does Maathai react, upon arriving in America, to the presence of black
Americans [p. 76]? What connection does she make between the legacy of slavery
in America and the legacy of colonialism in Kenya [p. 78]? 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 [p. 100]?
In Kenya, Maathai found herself often at the mercy of deeply ingrained
tribalism and sexism. What situations stand out most strongly as unjust, and how
did she stand up to and try to change the injustices she experienced?
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" [p. 117]. 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 [p. 122]?
Why did Maathai decide that tree planting as a community action is
particularly suited to women in rural areas? What effect did it have on the
lives of the women who got involved?
Regarding her marriage, Maathai says, "Nobody told me that men would be
threatened by the high academic achievements of women like me. . . . It was an
unspoken problem that I and not my husband had a Ph.D. and taught in the
university" [p. 139]. In the divorce trial, her husband tells the court that she
was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn, and too hard to
control" [p. 146]. How does she deal with these accusations and with the end of
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 [p. 133]? Why is she so effective in reaching out to
poor and illiterate rural women through the Green Belt Movement [pp.13538]?
Regarding the Uhuru Park struggle, Maathai says people "were amazed not
only that one relatively insignificant woman could stop a large project that
those in power wanted to see completed, but astonished that it could be done
only a year after we had watched in despair as losers of an election were
declared the winners. . . . To me, this was the beginning of the end of Kenya as
a one-party state" [p. 204205]. Why was this a promising sign of change for
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" [p. 214]. Discuss the
ways she responds to adversity and to the failure, at times, of her hopes
[pp.154, 164]. 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?
"Throughout my life," Maathai writes, "I have never stopped to strategize
about my next steps. I often just keep walking along, through whichever door
opens. I have been on a journey and this journey has never stopped" [p. 286].
Given the biblical story she recounts, why is "Rise Up and Walk" (Acts 3:110)
an apt choice for her campaign slogan?
Maathai became increasingly known to and engaged with Western women's
groups, environmental groups, and NGOs that could provide her with support and
publicity. Why was her decision to create and nurture such relationships abroad
so crucial to her struggle?
Considering how little experience Maathai had in political matters, she
used the press brilliantly to the advantage of her various causes, as well as
for her own protection. Why was the pressparticularly American and European
papersso important in keeping the hopes for progress alive in the face of a
corrupt government during this period?
What was particularly effective about the encampment of mothers in Uhuru
Park in an effort to free political prisoners? What principle is at work in this
particular action? Is it surprising that the government took so long to free the prisoners?
What might be the reason Maathai provides so little detail about her
family life or personal life after her divorce?
Maathai writes about being particularly devastated by the death of her
mother [pp. 27476], and earlier describes her relationships with her mother and
grandmother when she was a child [pp. 13, 3637]. Virginia Woolf wrote, "we
think back through our mothers if we are women." How does this idea apply to
Maathai and her decision to work to improve the lives of women?
Suggested Reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun; Karen Armstrong,
The Spiral Staircase; Alexandra Fuller, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs
Tonight; Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest; Kathy Kelly, Other Lands
Have Dreams: From Baghdad to Pekin Prison; Barbara Kingsolver, Animal,
Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life; Charles C. Mann, 1491: New
Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus; Michael Pollan, The
Omnivore's Dilemma; Arundhati Roy, War Talk and An Ordinary Person's
Guide to Empire; Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities
and the Durable Future; Terry Tempest Williams, The Open Space of
Democracy; Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of
Britain's Gulag in Kenya; Ngugi waThiong'o, Wizard of the Crow.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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