Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • Unbowed
  • Written by Wangari Maathai
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780307275202
  • Our Price: $16.00
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Unbowed

Buy now from Random House

  • Unbowed
  • Written by Wangari Maathai
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307492333
  • Our Price: $11.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Unbowed


    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook

A Memoir

Written by Wangari MaathaiAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Wangari Maathai


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: November 12, 2008
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-307-49233-3
Published by : Anchor Knopf
Unbowed Cover

Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Unbowed
  • Email this page - Unbowed
  • Print this page - Unbowed


In Unbowed, Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai recounts her extraordinary journey from her childhood in rural Kenya to the world stage. When Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, she began a vital poor people’s environmental movement, focused on the empowerment of women, that soon spread across Africa. Persevering through run-ins with the Kenyan government and personal losses, and jailed and beaten on numerous occasions, Maathai continued to fight tirelessly to save Kenya’s forests and to restore democracy to her beloved country. Infused with her unique luminosity of spirit, Wangari Maathai’s remarkable story of courage, faith, and the power of persistence is destined to inspire generations to come.



I was born the third of six children, and the first girl after two sons, on April 1, 1940, in the small village of Ihithe in the central highlands of what was then British Kenya. My grandparents and parents were also born in this region near the provincial capital of Nyeri, in the foothills of the Aberdare Mountain Range. To the north, jutting into the sky, is Mount Kenya.

Two weeks into mbura ya njahi, the season of the long rains, my mother delivered me at home in a traditional mud-walled house with no electricity or running water. She was assisted by a local midwife as well as women family members and friends. My parents were peasant farmers, members of the Kikuyu community, one of forty-two ethnic groups in Kenya and then, as now, the most populous. They lived from the soil and also kept cattle, goats, and sheep.

At the time of my birth, the land around Ihithe was still lush, green, and fertile. The seasons were so regular that you could almost predict that the long, monsoon rains would start falling in mid-March. In July you knew it would be so foggy you would not be able to see ten feet in front of you, and so cold in the morning that the grass would be silvery-white with frost. In Kikuyu, July is known as mworia nyoni, the month when birds rot, because birds would freeze to death and fall from the trees.

We lived in a land abundant with shrubs, creepers, ferns, and trees, like the mitundu, mukeu, and migumo, some of which produced berries and nuts. Because rain fell regularly and reliably, clean drinking water was everywhere. There were large well-watered fields of maize, beans, wheat, and vegetables. Hunger was virtually unknown. The soil was rich, dark red-brown, and moist.

When a baby joined the community, a beautiful and practical ritual followed that introduced the infant to the land of the ancestors and conserved a world of plenty and good that came from that soil. Shortly after the child was born, a few of the women attending the birth would go to their farms and harvest a bunch of bananas, full, green, and whole. If any of the bananas had ripened and birds had eaten them, the women would have to find another full bunch. The fullness expressed wholeness and wellness, qualities the community valued. Along with the bananas, the women would bring to the new mother’s house sweet potatoes from her and their gardens and blue-purple sugarcane (kigwa kia nyamuiru). No ordinary sugarcane would do.

In anticipation of the birth, the expectant mother would fatten a lamb that slept and ate inside her home. While the women were gathered the ritual foods, the child’s father would sacrifice the lamb and roast a piece of the flesh. The bananas and the potatoes would also be roasted and along with the meat and the raw sugarcane given to the new mother. She would chew small pieces of each in turn and then put some of the juice into the baby’s tiny mouth. This would have been my first meal. Even before breast milk, I would have swallowed the juice of green bananas, blue-purple sugarcane, sweet potatoes, and a fattened lamb, all fruits of the local land. I am as much a child of my native soil as I am of my father, Muta Njugi, and my mother, Wanjiru Kibicho, who was more familiarly known by her Christian name, Lydia. Following the Kikuyu tradition, my parents named me for my father’s mother, Wangari, an old Kikuyu name.

According to the Kikuyu myth of origin, God created the primordial parents, Gikuyu and Mumbi, and from Mount Kenya showed them the land on which they were to settle: west from Mount Kenya to the Aberdares, on to Ngong Hills and Kilimambogo, then north to Garbatula. Together, Gikuyu and Mumbi had ten daughters—Wanjiru, Wambui, Wangari, Wanjiku, Wangui, Wangeci, Wanjeri, Nyambura, Wairimu, and Wamuyu—but they had no sons. The legend goes that, when the time came for the daughters to marry, Gikuyu prayed to God under a holy fig tree, mËœugumo, as was his tradition, to send him sons-in-law. God told him to instruct nine of his daughters—the tenth was too young to be married—to go into the forest and to each cut a stick as long as she was tall. When the daughters returned, Gikuyu took the sticks and with them built an altar under the migumo tree, on which he sacrificed a lamb. As the fire was consuming the lamb’s body, nine men appeared and walked out of the flames.

Gikuyu took them home and each daughter married the man who was the same height as she was, and together they gave rise to the ten clans to which all Kikuyus belong. (Even though the youngest daughter, Wamuyu, did not get married, she did have children.) Each clan is known for a particular trade or quality, such as prophecy, craftsmanship, and medicine. My clan, Anjiru, is associated with leadership. The daughters made the clans matrilineal, but many privileges, such as inheritance and ownership of land, livestock, and perennial crops, were gradually transferred to men. It is not explained how women lost their rights and privileges.

For the Kikuyus, Mount Kenya, known as Kirinyaga, or Place of Brightness, and the second-highest peak in Africa, was a sacred place. Everything good came from it: abundant rains, rivers, streams, clean drinking water. Whether they were praying, burying their dead, or performing sacrifices, Kikuyus faced Mount Kenya, and when they built their houses, they made sure the doors looked toward it. As long as the mountain stood, people believed that God was with them and that they would want for nothing. Clouds that regularly shrouded Mount Kenya were often followed by rain. As long as the rains fell, people had more than enough food for themselves, plentiful livestock, and peace.

Sadly, these beliefs and traditions have now virtually died away. They were dying even as I was born. When European missionaries came to the central highlands at the end of the nineteenth cen- tury, they taught the local people that God did not dwell on Mount Kenya, but rather in heaven, a place above the clouds. The proper place to worship him was in church on Sundays, a concept that was unknown to Kikuyus. Nevertheless, many people accepted the missionaries’ worldview, and within two generations they lost respect for their own beliefs and traditions. The missionaries were followed by traders and administrators who introduced new methods of exploiting our rich natural resources: logging, clear-cutting native forests, establishing plantations of imported trees, hunting wild- life, and undertaking expansive commercial agriculture. Hallowed landscapes lost their sacredness and were exploited as the local people became insensitive to the destruction, accepting it as a sign of progress.

At just over 17,000 feet above sea level Mount Kenya towers over the central highlands. Although it straddles the Equator, it is topped by glaciers year round. Beholding Mount Kenya for Kikuyus and other communities that live around the mountain—Kambas, Merus, and Embus—must have been awe-inspiring. The story goes that the explorers Johan Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann, upon encountering the mountain in 1849, asked their guide, a member of the Kamba community, who was carrying a gourd, “What do you call that?” Thinking the two Germans were referring to the gourd, he replied, “It’s called kii-nyaa,” pronounced Kenya by the British. This became the name of the mountain and later the country.

Throughout Africa, the Europeans renamed whatever they came across. This created a schism in many Africans’ minds and we are still wrestling with the realities of living in this dual world. At home, we learned the names of mountains, streams, or regions from our parents, but in school we were taught the colonial names, deemed the “proper” names, which we had to use on our exams. The Aberdares, for example, known locally as Nyandarua, or “drying hide,” because of their shape, were named by the British in 1884 after Lord Aberdare, then the head of the Royal Geographical Society.

Naturally, it was many years before I was to understand the complexities of the period. I was born as an old world was passing away. The first Europeans had come to Kenya during the time of my grandparents, in the late 1800s. In 1885, Britain and the other “great powers” of Europe met at the Berlin Conference to formalize what was known as “The Scramble for Africa”—a thirty-year dash to lay claim to the entire continent. With the stroke of a pen on a map they assigned whole regions to the different powers and created completely new nations. In East Africa, Germany received Tanganyika, which later united with Zanzibar to become Tanzania. Britain acquired what became the Kenya colony and the Uganda protectorate. Prior to this superficial partitioning, many communities in Africa had identified themselves as nations, albeit micronations. The resulting countries brought these communities together in arbi- trary ways so that sometimes the new citizens of the post-Berlin nations perceived each other as foreigners. Some micronations found themselves stranded between two neighboring countries. The consequences of these divisions continue to haunt Africa.

My great-grandparents, whom I did not know, lived in a pre- European world. They would probably not have interacted with any other communities outside the central highlands, apart from the Maasais, who are pastoralists, herders of cows and goats. The Maasai traditional way of life required them to transverse the large plains to the west of the highlands, the vast grassland surrounded by ridges resulting from seismic activity that ripped apart the earth’s crust many millions of years ago. The “scar” stretches from Jordan to Mozambique, forming the Great Rift Valley.

At times, Maasais would raid Kikuyu villages, take away their cattle, and kill their young men, and the Kikuyus would do the same to the Maasais. But there were also times of truce, trade in the form of exchange of food, livestock, and land, and even intermarriage. These interethnic links helped cement ties between communities and foster peace. In Nyeri, mixed Maasai and Kikuyu blood was common and never viewed as a stigma. My mother had Maasai blood in her. Like her father, she was lithe, with high cheekbones and straight hair, characteristics more typical of Maasais than Kikuyus. We were told that my great-great-grandmother on my father’s side was a Maasai who was abducted during a raid. When she came to the highlands, she adopted Kikuyu customs and named her second son Muta, after her father. That name was eventually handed down to my father and, later, to my second son.

Throughout the nineteenth century, European missionaries crisscrossed Africa, clearing the way for Christianity. Almost immediately behind them came numerous explorers, adventurers, fortune seekers, and those in the service of the European powers prospecting for riches in Africa (both natural and human) to exploit. In Kenya, the British, perhaps because they did not want local people to receive competing Christian messages from denominations that were already contesting fiercely in Europe, subdivided the country and apportioned different areas to different denominations. Among the Catholics, many different orders were active in Kenya: the Consolata Missionary Sisters from Italy and the Holy Ghost Order and Loreto Sisters from Ireland. Most of the first missionaries in my area were Scottish Presbyterians and Italian Catholics.

The missionaries would generally do their work by visiting villages and attending to peoples’ health needs. They treated particularly stubborn conditions, such as gangrene or difficulties with childbirth, that could not be healed with local remedies like herbs and tree bark, and then established health centers. Initially, the missionaries would instruct small groups of adults in reading—only after they had converted to Christianity—but quite rapidly they established schools. I admire the missionaries’ patience and ingenuity in facilitating communication among people who did not understand one another’s languages. They did their work well.

The art of reading and writing must have hit people like lightning. It must have been extraordinary to them that lines and dots on a page or a slate when taken together could transmit a message that a person many miles away could receive. It must have seemed like a new form of magic that overshadowed what Kikuyus had known until then. Reading and writing fascinated them and they embraced it with a passion.

Before the arrival of the missionaries, Kikuyus and all the Kenyan communities had largely oral cultures. The ways they delivered a message or passed information included the use of drums, horns, shouting, or sending somebody. Among Kikuyus, one interesting form of message transmission and education was gichandi, which was made from a gourd. When you shook it, the beads on strings on the outside and the seeds and stones inside made music. As players or actors shook the gourd, they relayed riddles, proverbs, and other folk wisdom and information. These gourds were also inscribed with symbols and marks that represented a form of writing that these artisans would use for recitations and conveying information.

Ironically, the missionaries described such instruments in detail, but then encouraged the local people who had converted to Christianity to destroy them. Even as they trivialized many aspects of the local culture, including various art forms, they also recorded them and saved some of the artifacts, which now reside in European museums. I have heard that one of these gichandi is in a museum in Turin, Italy.

To consolidate their hold on their new territories in Africa, during the first decade and a half of the twentieth century the European governments encouraged people of European descent—among them South Africans, Australians, Canadians, Britons, Germans—to settle in their colonies. In Kenya, these settlers began arriving in increasing numbers and the British authorities gave them land in the highlands. The settlers found the highlands very attractive for the same reasons the local people do: the soil was fertile, debilitating diseases like malaria were absent, and it was neither too hot nor too cold—perfect weather.

The settlers received title deeds to most of the land in areas where they preferred to settle, near emerging city centers or regions that seemed promising for successful wheat, maize, coffee, and tea farming, and for grazing livestock. To make way for them, many people were displaced, including a large number who were forcibly relocated to the Rift Valley. Those who refused to vacate their land were transported by the British elsewhere.

By the 1930s the British had ensured that native communities, including Kikuyus, had been restricted to designated regions known as native reserves while their land was subdivided among the new arrivals. People within the native reserves were able to keep their land. Ihithe was in the Kikuyu reserve and my father owned land there. Some he had bought and some he inherited from his father, who purchased it when he migrated to Ihithe from Kahiga-ini, a village nearby. After both the First and Second World Wars, war veterans came to Kenya and received land—one of the ways the British government thanked them for defending the crown. By the early 1950s, about 40,000 settlers, most of them British, had moved onto about 2,500 farms in what became known as the “white highlands,” which included the hills outside Nairobi, the highlands of the central and western regions, and large tracts of grassland in the Rift Valley.

However, even after the arrival of missionaries and then the British administration, pockets of the old way of life persisted. Three of my grandparents never converted to Christianity, but I am informed that my mother’s mother was baptized on her deathbed. Their children, however, converted as adults, the first generation of Kikuyus to become almost wholly Christian. They must have been among the early converts of their generation, because when I was growing up, my uncle Kamunya, charismatic and progressive, was already a leader in the African Independent Church. This church embraced both Protestant and Catholic teachings as well as aspects of Kikuyu culture discouraged in the other two denominations.

From the Hardcover edition.
Wangari Maathai

About Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai - Unbowed

Photo © Brigitte Lacombe

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 40 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 Deputy Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, a post she held until 2007, when she left the government. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate of 2004, Matthai has been honored around the world for her work, including a recent  appointment to the Legion d’Honneur by France and the Order of the Rising Sun by Japan. She is the author of two previous books: The Green Belt Movement and Unbowed, a memoir, and she regularly speaks to organizations around the world. Maathai has three grown children and lives and works in Nairobi.
Praise | Awards


“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"Wangari Maathai is the rare leader who knows how to create independence, not dependence. On the page as in person, her example makes each of us a little stronger, wiser and braver than we ever thought we could be.” —Gloria Steinem“Compelling. . . . A striking reminder that the peace award, more than any other Nobel honor, recognizes success achieved through tremendous adversity.” —The Seattle Times“Inspirational. . . . Ms. Maathai will not be beaten down.” —The Economist“[Maathai’s] story provides uplifting proof of the power of perseverance—and of the power of principled, passionate people to change their countries and inspire the world.” —The Washington Post


WINNER 2007 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions|Teachers Guide

About the Book

“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.”
—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 the Guide

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 Kenya.

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.”

About the Author

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.

Wangari Maathai on what her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize means for Africa

“I have received so many messages from Kenyans—women, men and even children—saying how happy they are and how proud they feel as Kenyans and as Africans. I meet people around Nairobi and they hug me with tears in their eyes. This prize has given Kenyans a lot of energy. It really is the icing on the cake after the elections of 2002. While Kenya and Africa have many challenges, this prize is a signal that there is hope. For Kenyans, being recognized like this means we have been given a special challenge. I hope the Prize will inspire us as a government and as a people to set a good example for Africa and the rest of the world, to show them that no matter what problems we face we can still protect the environment and think of future generations. The message for Africans is that the solutions to our problems lie within us. The work we have been doing with the Green Belt Movement is a local response to a local problem.”

Excerpt courtesy of www.GreenBeltMovement.org

Discussion Guides

1. 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?

2. 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?

3. 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]?

4. 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]?

5. 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?

6. 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?

7. 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]?

8. 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?

9. 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 her marriage?

10. 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.135–38]?

11. 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. 204–205]. Why was this a promising sign of change for her?

12. 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?

13. “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 3:1–10) an apt choice for her campaign slogan?

14. 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?

15. 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 press—particularly American and European papers—so important in keeping the hopes for progress alive in the face of a corrupt government during this period?

16. 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?

17. What might be the reason Maathai provides so little detail about her family life or personal life after her divorce?

18. Maathai writes about being particularly devastated by the death of her mother [pp. 274–76], and earlier describes her relationships with her mother and grandmother when she was a child [pp. 13, 36–37]. 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 Readings

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.

Teacher's Guide


Unbowed is the moving and inspirational memoir of the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai. Unbowed charts Maathai’s development from a young girl in British Kenya to a divorced mother of three fighting to save her country from a dictator and his corruption.


As founder of the Green Belt Movement, Maathai is best known as an environmentalist, but this is much more than a memoir of her environmentalism. Maathai takes the reader through her childhood and education, including growing up in a polygamous home, getting an education when most girls stayed home, and being part of the first group of post-colonial Africans to get an American college education. Maathai’s political activism started shortly after her return home as part of the first wave of college-educated Kenyans. Maathai came back anxious to be part of building her newly independent country. However, instead of the job she had been promised, what she found was sexism and tribalism that made it difficult for her to find work. These twin troubles continued to harass her even as she became an associate professor and chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi. Maathai soon became aware of the environmental degradation facing her country and started the Green Belt Movement to combat it. One of the things that makes Maathai’s story so remarkable is that at the point where she becomes active with environmentalism, she sees the larger picture: that tribalism, sexism, poverty, and corruption are all inextricably linked and that to fight one, you must fight them all. She became a crusader on all fronts, who was pilloried in the press, beaten and arrested, ostracized by friends, even lambasted on the floor of parliament (including for being a divorcee), but she never lost hope or insistence on her beliefs. Maathai’s is truly a story of faith and courage, against incredible odds and powerful enemies. While containing moments of great tragedy, both personally and as a post-colonial story, Unbowed is ultimately uplifting and full of hope. Maathai’s story is linked with the history of Kenya in ways that make it impossible to ignore the pain of modern Africa, and making it powerfully important to students of many disciplines.


Wangari Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1940. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences and a Master of Science degree in the United States, she returned to Kenya and (after studying in Germany for a period), obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi, making her the first woman in East and Central Africa to obtain a doctorate degree. She taught veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi, eventually becoming the chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy. In 1977, through her involvement in the National Council of Women (of which she was the chairperson from 1981—87), she created the Green Belt Movement, which has since planted over 40 million trees across Africa. She was elected as a member of parliament in 2002 and became the Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources. In 2004 she became the first woman and first environmentalist to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, honored for her work on sustainable development, democracy and peace. She is the mother of three; she lives and works in Nairobi.


The questions, exercises, and assignments that follow are intended to guide your students through Unbowed as a memoir, a work of history, political and environment science as well as women’s studies. The history of Kenya is interwoven with Maathai’s personal history, and an understanding of the colonial and post-colonial experiences in Kenya are crucial for a student’s appreciation of Unbowed. A careful reading, guided by the following questions, will provide the needed context. The following discussion points explore Kenya’s history and its importance to the story, test reading comprehension, offer issues for more in-depth discussion, and suggest additional memoirs, autobiographies, and works of African history.


Understanding Kenya and its role in the story

The earliest known settlers to the region now known as Kenya came from northern Africa, in around 2000 BCE. Between around 500 BCE and 400 CE, Bantu-speaking peoples, who originated in what is now southeastern Nigeria, reached Kenya. The Bantu practiced slash-and-burn farming and also raised goats, sheep, and cattle. Over the following centuries, the small farming villages that the Bantu had established along the eastern coast of Africa developed into prosperous city-states, including Mombasa and Malindi in modern-day Kenya. By 1000 CE these city-states became part of a complex trading network linking Muslim Arab and Persian traders to the ports of East Africa, India, and China. As these traders settled in these East African city-states, Arabic blended with the Bantu language to form Swahili. In addition to trading goods, Muslim traders also introduced a small slave trade to East Africa, capturing around 1,000 slaves a year beginning in the ninth century CE and selling them to work for Muslim traders on the Arabian Peninsula and in Persia, India, and China.

While Muslim traders dominated East African city-states for centuries, they would soon lose their dominance. Beginning in the fifteenth century, European nation-states began to develop advanced navigational technology. In 1497, the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama reached the East African coast and began to make claims to the city-states that had dotted the coast. These city-states soon became an important part of Portugal's trading empire in the Indian Ocean. Eventually other nations, including Great Britain, the Netherlands, and France, all gained footholds in the Indian Ocean trade. While Europeans were first interested in Africa primarily for trading reasons, by 1880 there was a scramble to establish colonies in Africa. From 1884 to 1885, fourteen European countries met at the Berlin Conference to create basic rules for how they were to divide Africa, and by 1914, only two countries, Liberia and Ethiopia, remained independent. During this time, both Great Britain and Germany took control of parts of modern-day Kenya, encompassing it in the colonies of British East Africa and German East Africa respectively.

Independence was preceded by the Mau Mau revolution of 1952—56, which challenged British rule and heralded nearly a decade of a state of emergency. In 1963 Kenya gained its independence under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta and his Kenya African National Union. In 1978 Daniel arap Moi became Kenya’s second president and shortly turned Kenya into a single-party state. Moi’s presidency was marked by corruption, rigged elections, and repression of dissidents. Multi-party elections were not allowed again until 1992 and Moi retained power until 2002 when the NARC (National Rainbow Coalition) opposition coalition elected a president and marked the return of democracy to Kenya. Also in 2002, Wangari Maathai was elected a member of Parliament.
Additional sources on Kenyan history:

Understanding the story and putting it in context


1.In the chapter “Beginnings,” Maathai tells the Kikuyu myth of origin. What is the significance of her inclusion of this story? What theme does she set up with the telling of this myth?

2.The beginning of the book includes many anecdotes illustrating the colonial relationship between the British and the Kenyans. For instance, the British renaming of everything they came upon created a “schism” in the minds of many Africans (p. 6). What does this tell us about the colonial relationship? Several times in the memoir Maathai will change her own name. What does each signify, emotionally and politically?

3.What does Maathai mean when she says “I was born as an old world was passing away” (p. 7)?

4.What was the relationship between religion and literacy in colonial Kenya? Pay attention to this topic, and see how it develops throughout Maathai’s life and career.

5.Who were the athomi? What role did they play in Kenyan history?

6.What does the reader learn about a polygamous household in Kikuyu society? What did Maathai think about the arrangement and what effect did it have on her, as a child and as an adult, especially in light of the fact that she became a champion of women’s rights?

7.How was Maathai’s relationship with her father? What do you find surprising about their relationship? Is it what you would expect from a polygamous family?

8.Why did Maathai, her mother, and sister move to Nyeri (p. 29)? What was unusual about their situation and what did this reveal about her family and their beliefs?

9.What was the effect of the British introduction of non-native trees to Kenya (p. 38)? Why did the Kenyans accept them?

10.In what ways is the fig tree of Maathai’s childhood a symbol (p. 44)? What does it represent to her? What does it tell us about the Kikuyu view and understanding of nature? Note other references to fig trees later in the book.

11.What role does storytelling play in the Kikuyu culture? What effect did it have on Maathai as a child?

Education and Career

1.Why was Maathai’s family concerned about sending her to boarding school? Were their concerns valid?

2.As a young student what was Maathai’s attitude toward education? Compare and contrast her viewpoint with your own, or that of a “typical” American student. What hurdles did she face while trying to pursue an education?

3.What was Maathai’s relationship with whites during her childhood and adolescence? To what degree were her experiences positive or negative? Were there any that surprised you as a reader?

4.What was the basis of the Mau Mau uprising (p. 61)? Compare and contrast the Mau Mau to other guerrilla movements. What did the nuns at St. Cecelia’s do to help the British cause against the Mau Mau? What tangible effect did Kenya’s independence (and the battle for it) have on Maathai and her political beliefs?

5.What were Maathai’s experiences with and reactions to racism when she was in America? Does her reaction surprise you? What was her view of the civil rights movement? How does the racism of Maathai’s childhood differ with that of America during the same time?

6.How did her stay in Kansas change Maathai, physically, emotionally, and intellectually?

7.Why was Maathai not given the job at the zoology department upon graduation? What did that event indicate about Kenyan politics at the time? Relate her experience to the current political situation in other African nations.

8.What were some of the battles Maathai faced as a professor? How did she overcome these obstacles? What effect did she have on women who came after her?

9.Compare the sexism that Maathai experienced at work with that of American women of the same period. Would she have been able to advance to such a position of power as she did if she had been an American woman (either white or black) of the time?

Kenyan politics

1.How does the first “greenbelt” Maathai planted in Kamakunji reflect colonialism’s impact on Kenya and its post-independence troubles? How is it representative of Kenya’s problems as a whole?

2.In what ways was the Green Belt Movement at its beginning also a women’s rights movement (see the chapter entitled “Foresters without Diplomas”)? Do you think the forestry officials that Maathai confronted were sexist?

3.In what ways did traditional Kenyan and British colonial cultural traditions clash in regard to Maathai’s engagement, marriage and divorce?

4.How and why did the NWCK lose most of its funding and become a second-tier organization? What does this show about Kenyan politics and how does it foreshadow the Moi presidency?

5.Why did men join the Green Belt Movement at the grassroots level? What were some of the results, both positive and negative?

6.How and why did Maathai’s involvement in the Green Belt Movement lead her into the pro-democracy movement? When did she first officially join the pro-democracy movement? What were the results?

7.How would you characterize the methods used by Maathai in fighting the development of Uhuru Park? What do you think of them? How else could she have approached this struggle?

8.What was the turning point in the battle to defeat the Times complex (the “park monster”) in Uhuru park?

9.How did Kenya move from a democracy to a totalitarian regime?

10.What precipitated Maathai’s barricading herself in her home? What was the result?

11.In the chapter “Aluta Continua,” police come to Maathai’s house while she is having an illegal meeting. How does Maathai react? How would you have reacted, given her history with the police? What did she mean when she wrote she disarmed the police “figuratively” (p. 232)? How do you think the police felt?

12.The “teach-ins” that Maathai and the Green Belt Movement held in the 1990s are reminiscent of the 1960s in America. What are other connections between 1990 Kenya and 1960 U.S.?

13.What was the connection between the tribal clashes of the early 1990s and the government’s anti-democracy repression? How do tribal clashes help the ruling party? (Can you find similar examples in other African countries?) What is the connection between the tribal clashes and environmental degradation?

14.How are the tribal clashes a legacy of colonial times?

15.How was female genital mutilation used to try to control Maathai? Discuss how FGM is always about controlling women.

16.In the Kenyan elections of 1992 and 1997, what problems with the politicians and electorate did Maathai identify? What did she want them to do? Compare Kenya to other emerging democracies in Africa or elsewhere.

17.How did ethnicity and tribalism affect Kenya’s multi-party elections and attempts to create a true democracy?

18.What is “land grabbing” and how did it affect Kenya’s democracy? What was Maathai’s involvement in the issue? What does the issue symbolize?

19.Explain Maathai’s “rise up and walk” political philosophy and explain how it differs from what the electorate wanted in previous elections. How is this philosophy related to her environmental activism?

20.When Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, many wondered why an environmentalist would receive such an award. Explain why Maathai and her activism were worthy of the prize. What are her “three pillars”?

In-Depth Discussion

1.Look back at the philosophical observations made by Maathai through the course of the memoir. For example, “We do the right thing not to please people but because it’s the only logically reasonable thing to do, as long as we are being honest with ourselves–even if we are the only ones left.” (p. 165) And, “[W]hile it’s perhaps sometimes foolhardy to take on something that’s too big for you, it is incredible what you can achieve if you are single-minded enough.” (p. 49) Choose one and explain how she lived it as a personal philosophy.

2.Maathai was a part of a number of moments of great historical significance (Kennedy Air Lift, Mau Mau, the global environmental and human rights movements, the women’s movement, etc.). Choose one to research and discuss how it affected her life and Kenyan politics and history.

3.Maathai’s ancestors did not see trees as timber; it was European culture that brought to Kenya the idea that nature could be a source of commerce. This cultural difference obviously had grave consequences for Kenya. What are other examples of differences or misunderstandings of culture that caused conflict? How does the idea of culture drive Maathai’s political actions?

4.Women are considered symbols of many different things in most cultures. Maathai first introduces this idea on p. 111 when she talks about women being “carriers and promoters of culture.” Track this idea through the memoir. Where does this idea cause conflict for Maathai and what does she do in response? How does the fight against this idea influence her path and politics?

5.Maathai wrote, “A great river always begins somewhere” (p. 119). She ended up becoming many things: an environmentalist, a women’s rights activist, a politician, and a dissident. Choose one and trace the origins of Maathai’s role by creating a timeline.

6.Discuss the ways that the Moi government used Maathai as a symbol and as a weapon in their effort to suppress all women. In what ways where they effective, or not?
7.When Maathai lost her job, it was international funding that allowed her to work for the Green Belt Movement as a full-time employee. Discuss the ways that the international community assisted Maathai throughout her life, both personally and professionally.

8.What do Maathai’s work and life story suggest about the role (and responsibility) of civil society organizations and individuals in bringing about social change on both small and large scales?

9.If you could interview Maathai, what would you ask her? Write ten questions and discuss them with a partner.

Beyond the story

1.Why is debt such an important issue in African development? Put Maathai’s efforts to erase debt in context and prepare a report on the current state of the global movement to eradicate third-world debt.

2.Research the issue of tribalism and government complicity in ethnic clashes across Africa, or one particular country (other than Kenya).

3.Maathai was involved with many organizations considered part of the international women’s movement. Choose one dealing with women’s rights and create a profile of their current activities.

4.Choose another environmental movement or organization, either in the United States or abroad, and write an essay on it comparing and contrasting it to the Green Belt Movement.

Further reading

The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience, Wangari Maathai
A New Name for Peace: International Environmentalism, Sustainable Development, and Democracy, Philip Shabecoff
Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood, Elspeth Joscelin Huxley
A Leaky Tent Is a Piece of Paradise, Bonnie Tsui, ed.
Kenya: From Colonization to Independence, 1888—1970, R. Mugo Gatheru
Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta
Long Walk to Freedom,
Nelson Mandela
No Future Without Forgiveness,
Desmond Tutu
Wizard of the Crow and Petals of Blood, Ngugi wa’Thiongo
A Continent for the Taking, Howard French
Wonders of the African World,
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Imperial Reckoning, Caroline Elkins
Iran Awakening,
Shirin Ebadi [Winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize]
After the Guns Fall Silent, Jody Williams [Winner of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize]
Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali
An Inconvenient Truth, Albert Gore
Courage for the Earth,
Peter Matthiesen, ed.
The Legacy of Luna,
Julia Hill
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral,
Barbara Kingsolver

About the Author of the Teacher’s Guide

This guide was written by Stefanie Breitling. Ms. Breitling has a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies and one in English Education. She worked in book publishing for years, and is currently teaching English at a high school in The Bronx, New York.

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: