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BookBrowse Reviews Unbowed by Wangari Maathai

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Unbowed

A Memoir

by Wangari Maathai

Unbowed by Wangari Maathai X
Unbowed by Wangari Maathai
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2006, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2007, 352 pages

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Wangari Maathai, the winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize and a single mother of three, recounts her extraordinary life as a political activist, feminist, and environmentalist in Kenya.

RIP Kenya's Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai who has died in Nairobi while undergoing cancer treatment. She was 71.
Based in Kenya, The Green Belt Movement is a women's civil society organization advocating for human rights and supporting good governance and peaceful democratic change through the protection of the environment. Maathai began it as a grassroots tree planting program to address the challenges of mass deforestation - a process that had begun with colonialism but had hastened since independence, reducing the lush, green, fertile land of plenty she'd known as a child to a deforested wilderness. Her reasoning was simple:

"Trees would provide a supply of wood that would enable women to cook nutritious foods. They would also have wood for fencing and fodder for cattle and goats, The trees would offer shade for humans and animals, protect watersheds and bind the soil, and, if they were fruit trees, provide food. They would also heal the land by bringing back birds and small animals and regenerate the vitality of the earth."

That in itself would be enough of a mission, but in the process of planting trees, Maathai also planted ideas - ideas that a generation and a gender weren't supposed to be having, ideas about how things could be done better to benefit the people - ideas that landed her in extremely hot water with the government that ran Kenya as a de facto one party state from 1969 to 1991. However Maathai was not to be put down. From the courage of going overseas to study in the USA (becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate), to her determination when she returned full of enthusiasm to be met by discrimination as a female professor; to being divorced by her husband on the grounds that she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control" and being thrown into jail for contempt of court after she spoke up, she just grew more determined. When she was repeatedly threatened, beaten and jailed for her work with the Green Belt Movement she didn't kowtow to anybody but kept on going; and now that she is a Nobel Prize winner and deputy minister for the environment and natural resources in the legitimate government, she keeps on working and shaping the future of the country she loves.

To date, her movement has been responsible for mobilizing more than 100,000 women to plant more than 40 million trees across Africa. Soil erosion has been reduced, biodiversity restored and hundreds of thousands of families are living happier, healthier lives. However, there is still so much more to do - forests are still being lost, democracy is fragile, and poverty is still widespread. The Green Belt Movement's goal for the next decade is to plant 1 billion trees worldwide because a "healthy natural world is at the heart of an equitable and peaceful society; and protecting the environment is something every individual can take part in."

Unbowed is a powerful tale of one woman's life. Maathai writes as one imagines she speaks - directly and honestly. One reviewer refers to her writing style as workmanlike but her simple, straightforward style is entirely in character and appropriate with the story she has to tell. Most celebrity authors employ a ghostwriter to some extent; maybe she did, maybe she didn't, but either way, her voice rings clear and true.

About the Author: Not only was Wangari Maathai the first African woman to win a Nobel Prize, she was the first African of either sex between South Africa and Egypt to win it. It was also the first time that the Nobel Committee had awarded the Peace Prize to an environmentalist, thus making the connection between peace, sustainable management of resources and good governance. She died in September 2011. For a short biography of Wangari Maathai see BookBrowse. For her complete biography read Unbowed!


Did you know?
Between 1970 and 2002 African countries obtained about US $540 billion in loans (much of which went into the private bank accounts of dictators) and paid back $550 billion. However, because of the interest on the debt, in 2002 they still owed $300 billion. In 2005 Kenya's external debt was estimated at $9 billion. Currently Kenya spends about 50% of its GDP paying back debt. Although many African countries have received substantial debt relief over the past two years, Kenya has not been one of them (to the best of our knowledge, only Italy has waived Kenya's debt obligation at this time). This is an issue that Maathai has spoken out on on a number of occasions.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in November 2006, and has been updated for the September 2007 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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