“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.”
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.
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.”
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?
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