ISBN: 0307263487
ISBN 13: 9780307263483
By: Wangari Maathai

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About this book

Hugely charismatic, humble, and possessed of preternatural luminosity of spirit, 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.Born in a rural village in 1940, Wangari Maathai was already an iconoclast as a child, determined to get an education even though most girls were uneducated. We see her studying with Catholic missionaries, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the United States, and becoming the first woman both to earn a PhD in East and Central Africa and to head a university department in Kenya. We witness her numerous run-ins with the brutal Moi government. She makes clear the political and personal reasons that compelled her, in 1977, to establish the Green Belt Movement, which spread from Kenya across Africa and which helps restore indigenous forests while assisting rural women by paying them to plant trees in their villages. We see how Maathai’s extraordinary courage and determination helped transform Kenya’s government into the democracy in which she now serves as assistant minister for the environment and as a member of Parliament. And we are with her as she accepts the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in recognition of her “contribution to sustainable development, human rights, and peace.”In Unbowed, Wangari Maathai offers an inspiriting message of hope and prosperity through self-sufficiency.

Reader's Thoughts


It was my professor of African American Women's History in college who taught me the lesson that one of the best ways to learn history is through studying the lived experiences of activists working in opposition to a system structured to oppress them-- a combination of Patricia Hill Collins's standpoint theory, which states (simplified) that the oppressed must be able to navigate both the dominant paradigm and the inner workings of the cultures oppressed people create outside the realm of powerful people thereby giving oppressed people an epistemological advantage for understanding any given situation's power structure; and Forest Gump-- activist lives map out their generation's greatest hits. Fantastic advice. Maathai's autobiography tells the story of British colonialism in Kenya, the Mau Mau rebellion and Britain's subsequent torture and repression, the liberation movement and the heady days following, the fall into corruption and neoliberal poverty, and the Kenyan democratic movement in the 90s and 2000s.Unbowed is the story of Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan woman who founded the Green Belt Movement and won the Nobel Peace Prize, the first African woman and the first environmental activist to do so. And that's about all I knew of her-- somehow her tree planting organization was groundbreaking enough to merit a Nobel; ok, sounds cool. But Maathai and her work is so much bigger than this!! It's criminal it is "tree planting" that has become the word association with her name. She was an incredibly courageous democracy and land rights activist who used trees as a symbolic and tactical weapon to defend people's land from corporate and government land grabs, as a way to bring witness to ethnic violence, and as a weapon of attack to force the Kenyan government to release victims of torture and disappearances. Maathai was a trained biologist, so her choice of trees was both scientific and symbolic; planting diverse native trees combats environmental injustices and hunger from drought, soil erosion, and climate change caused by deforestation; trees are a long-term method to solidly plant something tangible on the land that she and her fellow activists and farmers used their bodies to defend-- from severe physical attack, like clubs and machetes and sometimes bullets.Maathai was a professor and a mother, so she carefully draws out the lessons she wants us to learn from her life. So much to learn in here. There is the scientific, ethnobotanical foundation that she links to women's rural cultural traditions that taught respect for the trees found near springs. There is the stubborn dedication to her own definitions of what is right, rooted in respect for land and people, and the constant decisions to act, to take the practical, logistical steps and personal sacrifices that enable a movement to commence and sustain itself. There is that nimble navigation of becoming a public figure-- claiming it, staking out her expertise and the legitimacy of her opinions in a white rich man's world that would silence them-- and using growing international renown to constantly channel power and resources to the grassroots activists working alongside her and their struggles. There is the weaving of privilege and lucky blessings of her life which are what enabled her to do what she did; the lesson being in how she embraced and fought to use these gifts: the recipient of one of very few scholarships to study in the US offered by President Kennedy at the lucky moment she graduated high school, after the chance privileges and connections that enabled her to go to school at all, Maathai was able to become an educated, multilingual woman despite a rural poverty background and fight her way into doctorates and professorship and (I think?) ministry appointments, becoming the first woman everything in science in East Africa. Maathai passed away in 2011. I'm mourning the world's loss right now.Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from the land, but instill in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost. (p.138)On Direct Action and the importance of ecology as an intersection in social justice:As long as the Green Belt Movement was perceived as just a few women raising seedlings, we didn't matter to the government. But as soon as we began to explain how trees disapear and why it is important for citizens to stand up for their rights-- whether environmental, women's, or human-- senior officials in the government and members of Parliament began to take notice. They soon realized that unlike some women's oranizations in Kenya, the Green Belt Movement was not organizing women for the purposes of advancing the governmemt's agenda, whatever that might be. We were organizing women (and men) to do things for themselves that, in most cases, the government had no interest in doing. That unsettled the authorities. (p.180)On courage:We always encouraged people to run when they were attacked. It was one thing to shout, "Leave the forest alone;" it was another to nurse a wound in the hospital. Some of us who joined our campaign for Karura [Forest] and who were with us that day [hired thugs attacked the activists stood and blocked logging equipment] were also young, and we didn't want them to be so afraid that they wouldn't protest again. In all our campaigns it was our persistence that won the day more than our bravery. (p. 269)On that day Maathai was beat so savagely that a doctor in the hospital told her that if she had sustained one more hit to the head she surely would have died.Many people assume that I must have been inordinately brave to face down the thugs and police during the campaign for Karura Forest. ... For me, the destruction of Karura Forest, like [other campaigns Maathai led], were problems that needed to be solved, and the authorities were stopping me from finding a solution. What people see as fearlessness is really persistence. Because I am focused on the solution, I don't see danger. Because I don't see danger, I don't allow my mind to imagine what might happen to me, which is my definition of fear. If you don't foresee the danger and see only the solution, then you can defy anyone and appear strong and fearless.This is not to say we were reckless. We found ways to protect ourselves. ... In the end, what was important was that we showed we were not intimidated. We were in the right and had stood up for what we believed in. We were making a statement that this was a public forest and no houses should be built there. ... How did we register our protest? Well, you can talk all day about how something is wrong, but how do you tell a government in this situation that it is violating your rights? Our answer was to plant trees. Today, that beautiful forest is still there, helping Nairobi breathe, and more trees are being planted to reseed what was lost and restore its biodiversity and beauty. (p. 272-3)


There is a lot of interesting history in this book, but I found the writing "clunky." I don't think it's reasonable to put this down to "it's not her native language" when the author is highly educated and had the means and opportunity to have this edited for style. That said, I also found the early parts of the memoir cliche and trite. Maathai promotes the "pre-colonial Eden" view of Africa that is neither true, nor particularly interesting to me. However, this is, after all, a memoir, and it might be unfair of me to judge Maathai's view of events. It's her story, after all. But I really got tired of being talked down to and having events and social currents oversimplified to the point of inanity. If you don't know much about Kenya, or East Africa, or the Greenbelt Movement, you'll probably really like this book, if you don't mind poor sentences and vague word choice. However, don't take this as the last word. Remember this is one person's interpretation of events and hero worship is seldom an accurate way to view history.

Carol Kuniholm

While the writing sometimes falters, and the story sometimes stalls, this is a moving, challenging autobiography of a woman who said "yes" to the demanding situations that confronted her. She tackled deforestation and soil erosion with creation of the Green Belt Movement, and stood for the environment, for public parks, for the rights of women. She faced public ridicule, imprisonment, tear gas, beatings, and endless threats with grace, courage, and apparent good humor. Two long quotes: "I don’t tend to invite challenges, but I meet them. And once I do, I stick with it. I know the situation is not going to be resolved overnight, and I don’t hurry to meet a second challenge until the first is concluded. I have seen time and again that if you stay with a challenge, if you are convinced that you are right to do so, and if you give everything you have, it is amazing what can happen."And this:"What I have learned over the years is that we must be patient, persistent, and committed. When we are planting trees sometimes people will say to me, 'I don't want to plant this tree, because it will not grow fast enough.' I have to keep reminding them that the trees they are cutting today were not planted by them, but by those who came before. so they must plant the trees that will benefit communities in the future. I remind them that like a seedling ,with sun, good soil, and abundant rain, the roots of our future will bury themselves in the ground and a canopy of hope will reach into the sky."

Shalom House

This is the memoir of Wangari Maathai, a strong African woman who started planting trees as an act of defiance to poverty, care for the earth, nonviolent action, democracy, and peace. This action created a movement of Kenyans who have planted 30 million trees in their country and the results of these acts are too numerous to name.They did crazy, beautiful things like “trespassing” in a national forest in order to plant trees as an act against the government’s secret deal to give the land to a private developer. At times they were beaten and arrested. Elderly women went naked in Uhuru park in Nairobi when police tried to deny them the right to protest against the arrest and torture of their sons who were political prisoners. It was shameful for young men to see their elders naked. It was something that should make them pause and rethink their actions. When Maathai ran for a seat in the Kenyan Parliament, her slogan was “Rise Up and Walk” based off of the Biblical story in Acts 3 where Jesus’ disciples, Peter and John, heal a disabled poor man and tell him to “rise up and walk.” Maathai writes, “What I wanted voters to understand was that I could not give them alms or even miracles, but together we could lift ourselves up and address the conditions of our poverty and disempowerment and regain our sense of self-respect.”For decades of nonviolent work for peace in her land, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.


This book is like the trees that Wangari Maathai so passionately planted in Kenya - it is slow in the beginning, building its roots, but then it blossoms and grows into one of the most fascinating and inspiring reads I have read in a while. I also learned so much from this book about Kenya's struggle to have a real, thriving, democratic form of government. I did not realize that the first real elections that they had was in November of 2002!Maathai is a very wise woman who came from humble beginnings, but through education and persistence forged this amazing journey into a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2004. Her writings about the struggle to form a democracy through the advocacy work of many organizations, including her own Green Belt Movement, illuminated just how hard it is to have a real, democratic society. Kenya's struggle for real democracy is unfortunately way too much like many other nation-states' struggles that continue to this day. Kenya has had to battle corrupt politicians who rigged elections, used the police and their own newspaper to oppress those who worked for freedom. Kenyan politicians who were in power deliberately antagonized different ethnicities against each other in order to consolidate their own power, causing untold internal strife, displacement and cultural antagonism that lives on today.Maathai also hits the nail on the head with one of her statements that Kenya was always a land full of many nations, but a foreign power came, drew lines on a map, and clobbered these people together into one land and now they have to learn how to live together in a government that represents all of them. This is the truth for many states in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia and is part of the reason why so much strife still occurs today in these states.Maathai is also a strident environmentalist and makes the point why environmentalism, good government, and human rights are all tied together. It is for this reason that the Nobel Committee chose Maathai as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 2004.I really enjoyed this book. It brought back the part of my brain that loves and is fascinated by international relations, foreign affairs, learning new histories, and realizing how so many histories are connected and influence the events and world that we experience today. I love books that leave me feeling inspired about foreign affairs than jaded (because that is what my UVA education did for me). This is one of them and it is at its core an incredible story of persistence by a remarkable woman who through her persistence managed to help change a country.

Reading Builds

An interesting book with lots of potential. Does not appear to have been chosen as a Common Reading elsewhere. 1. Yes/maybe. Paperback, 326 p, $14.95, engaging, no audio? Author visit expense might be high - research alternative speakers. 2. Engaging: The first half of the memoir was the most engaging, especially where the author reflects on how her childhood experiences formed her character and her connection to the environment. Culture: There are many cultural aspects to the book. One obvious aspect is the tribal nature of life in Kenya (and by extension Africa in general). A second aspect would be the place of women in society in Kenya and by extension globally. A third would be colonialism in Africa, yet another would be the place of the environment in different cultures, and another would be the role of storytelling. Social issues: The most obvious social issue is our relationship to the natural environment. The book chronicles in a personal way the beginning of the Green Belt Movement. Lens: One lens is the statement on page 109: "my culture was ruthlessly destroyed under the pretense that its values and those of Christianity were in conflict." This is certainly open to debate and applicable to many cultures here and globally. Thought-provoking: There are many details that could be expanded into broader discussions. To name just one, on page 96, the author discusses the many names by which she was known and how she chose to reclaim her "original names."Controversial: The story of how the Kenyan government manipulated Maathai's image and belittled her with labels such as "wayward" is very instructive and opens many possibilities for conversations. Multidisciplinary: Unbowed will definitely be of interest to students with majors in natural sciences and the environment, women's studies, political science, sociology, international studies, economics, history and more. Relevance: Interest in Africa is very high and this book may interest students for that reason. It is also easy to identify with the author, perhaps especially for students from rural areas and modest backgrounds. The book is also very timely because of increased interest in being "green." 3. Maathai is a living embodiment of the Honors College Mission statement due to her courage, her commitment to social responsibility and her refusal to stifle her spirit of inquiry. 4. Activities:Potential activities would include a forum of some type either about a topic Africana studies, the Green Movement or another topic from the book. Maathai appears in Leonardo diCaprio's The Eleventh Hour. A showing could include a panel discussion. Interested faculty members could hold book talks, brown bags, or other speaking events related to particular topics from the book. One example would be the Green Belt Movement as an exemplar of a grass-roots self-help movement. My hero activity:see: http://www.myhero.com/myhero/hero.asp...working in/or planting a native garden. A Chicago school dedicated a native plant garden to the author: http://www.cnt.org/natural-resources/... A joint fundraising activity with a Green theme could be held with Honors Student Council. African "folk" activities: storytelling, dance, music, proverbs, cooking, riddles ....5. Partners:Jonathan Overpeck, director of the UA's Institute for the Study of Planet Earth, is one of the authors of a report released by the The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, http://uanews.org/node/16395Africana studies: http://w3.coh.arizona.edu/aas/about.htmLook into local Green Movement connections: http://www.tucsongreenzine.com/Someone to talk about sustainability on the UA campus and what is being done - maybe from facilities?Look harder for a campus club with a "green" mission. 6. The book does not focus on the southwestern US. There is no movie.


This was a great book about a strong woman who triumphed over many adversities. It was a good read and inspiring. It was interesting to learn of the culture in Kenya. I rate it a 3.5.


Reading Unbowed by Wangari Maathai was definitely uplifting and inspiring. She put me in her shoes and made me realize things about myself. This woman is truly a strong woman role model to not only myself but the other people who have read this book as well. Her spirit is very humble and always optimistic. I like to believe the reason why she carries those traits are because of the way she grew up. Wangari was born in the rural village of Kenya in 1940. Throughout her whole life she has always been interested in learning with so much passion for everything she did. Education changed everything for her. She realized that with an education anything was possible and she didn’t like to believe that men controlled a woman or any career. Being able to be apart of the “Kennedy Airlift” she earned her bachelors and masters in biology in the United States, finally receiving her PhD as the first woman in Central Africa. Through her education and the Moi Movement it compelled her to establish the Green Belt Movement, not letting anything or anyone stop her. This helped to restore indigenous forests and also allowed woman to receive money by planting these trees. This is a story about the first African American woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Piece Prized; documenting all the wonderful achievements of this remarkable woman. I recommend this book to anyone who is looking for advice of life in general. Waangari gives her experience through conversation with the reader. For example, she explained in a conversation with me that, “To me, a general orientation toward trusting people and a positive attitude toward life and fellow human beings is healthy – not only for one’s peace of mind but also to bring about change. (pg 70)” Her stong beliefs persuade me to be the same. I hope that anyone who picks this book up sees Wangari Maathai as a strong woman role model just like I have.


This is not one of our book club selections (yet), but it should be. This woman is incredible. It's the memoir of Wangari Maathai, who in 2004 was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She managed this through a lifetime of environmental activism, which naturally led to human rights activism. A biologist by training, she realized that many of the social ills of her native Kenya stemmed from abuse and mismanagement of the country's natural resources, so she founded the Green Belt movement to plant trees across the deforested nation, thereby curbing soil erosion and providing necessary firewood to its inhabitants. Through her many run-ins with the corrupt Kenyan government, who tried in vain to rein in this uppity, out-of-line, "overeducated" woman, she became a crusader for the underrepresented and disenfranchised, and for fair and democratic government. After years of fighting alongside the nation's opposition party to unseat the ruling party, she helped to bring about real change in government and was elected to Parliament.It's a fascinating and colorful story, and makes me proud to be a female biologist.


beyond inspiring. i can't even speak to what she writes about; i think it is already too late for me to build the fortitude to challenge (and shift) the orientation of my government's moral compass. "but it is never too late," i'm sure maathai would say. and maybe she's right; we are all so comfortable believing that we are not the ones who can make a difference that it makes it infinitely harder to gather momentum for those who are willing to try. r.i.p. wangari maathai; she died last friday at the age of 71.


The first half, about her childhood and even her experience as a university student in the U.S., lacked depth. The book became more captivating as I read on, but only because the subject matter became more interesting (her experiences in Kenya after she returned from university, Kenya's recent political history). Unfortunately, her writing style throughout is pretty dry; she probably should have worked on the book with someone. She also appears self-congratulating at times, which is annoying but forgivable. Her observations about international development were right on target, in my view. It was refreshing to see someone use their American higher education to make a difference in their country of origin. If only there were more people willing to do the same, and if only indigenous NGOs received as much if not more financial support from abroad as American NGOs.Some gems from her story:She struggled to maintain international support because the Kenyan government ordered all foreign assistance to go through them (p. 196), as well as approval for nominations to certain posts such as to spots within the United Nations. At one point CARE Austria was reluctant to help her purchase an office for her NGO (p. 201) because it was not officially recognized by the Kenyan government. This policy of using foreign assistance to prop up (malevolent) governments is stupid and it upsets me. You can't eliminate the risk of failed states, you only delay the collapse. And in delaying, you're creating conditions in which conflict will foment, making the inevitable collapse even worse. UGH"Ethnicity is one of the major strategies that politicians have used to divide Africans." (p. 236) "...the Kenyan government could be completely untouched by the complaints of its people; but the minute the international community caught wind of what elements in the government were doing, it could move quickly, because it depended so much on foreign aid, military training funds, and goodwill overseas." (p. 243) "The Green Belt Movement had provided a laboratory of sorts to experiment with a holistic approach to development that dealth with problems on the ground but also examined and addressed their individual and systemic causes." (p. 255) "What people see as fearlessness is really persistence. Because I am focused on the solution, I don't see danger. Because I don't see danger, I don't allow my mind to imagine what might happen to me, which is my definition of fear. If you don't see danger and see only the solution, then you can defy anyone and appear strong and fearless." (p. 272)Recommended to anyone with an interest in Kenya, Africa, international development, etc.


Wangari shared very intimate, interesting, informative experiences of her lifetime.As much as she had a passion for the restoration and preservation of our country's most valuable attributes; it's captivating landscape, vegetation, wildlife, the freedom of it's people and enviornmental-friendly methods of providing energy-sources among others, she clearly had a talent in writing. Pick it up to be inspired, to understand why something as simple as planting trees has a significant impact on seemingly unrelated aspects of life, such as why some of our rivers are brown. Internalize the values instilled in her as a child, through stories.


This memoir is about Wangari Maathai's extraordinary life. She established the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, earned the Right Livelihood Award in 1984, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.She grew up in a rural area of Kenya and was brought by the Kennedy student airlifts to the US. With research in Germany, she earned a doctorate in microbiology. After taking a teaching post in Nairobi, she joined with the church and fought against the then-corrupt government to protest deforestation. The history she goes on to describe was both new to me and painful -- every victory seemed to come with an additional setback. As she grew as a leader (always focused on planting trees), encouraging the splintered opposition parties to organize, she somehow responded with peace to repeated and unimaginable abuse in her personal/professional/political life.As Dr. Maathai's first tree-planting nonprofit falters and her husband leaves her, she develops a mindset I really liked:"'We are on a track that has not been explored before. We are on a trial-and-error basis. If what we did yesterday did not produce good results, let's not repeat it today because it's a waste of time.' ...If you have given something your best shot and it is still not working, then what else can you do? Nothing. ...as I like to tell people, 'Failing is not a crime.' What is important is that if you fail you have the energy and the will to pull yourself up" (Page 144).


Fascinating autobiography (in Dutch, title "Ongebroken") of the founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, which encourages local women to set up cooperative tree nurseries and plant narrow ribbons of trees in villages. The trees help prevent soil erosion, create shade and an area of vegetation which goats can graze so that women can help feed their families. Wangari Maathai looks back fondly to her village roots and the way of life before the plantations encouraged the destruction of the local forests. She was married to a politician who divorced her once she became an activist for democracy, women's rights and the environment, and became a politician in her own right, and became Kenian undersecretary for the Environment and Natural Resources. As her fame spread at international level, she was subjected to attacks and threats at national level, and in recognition of her lifelong achievement was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.


The date July 7 or 7/7 is a significant one for Maathai's movement. It's called Saba Saba in KiSwahili. I'd like to note here that I was reading this book on Saba Saba. Before reading this, my only exposure to the Kikuyu was Mike Resnick's Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia. Although I think that the Kirinyaga stories are powerful fiction, I am only now grasping that they are a dis-service to the Kikuyu in some important ways. From a cultural standpoint, I appreciated learning that there are Kikuyu stories about dragons. I wondered what these dragons look like. I know that Chinese dragons are conceptually different from European dragons. Kikuyu dragons are shapechangers which is interesting, but I wonder what else they are that's different from European or Chinese folklore.Wangari Maathai's approach to the environmental degradation that Kenya has suffered is so simple and effective. It's also so applicable to any geographical area that has become deforested. What isn't simple or easy is the challenge of standing firm against the powerful corporate and political interests that seek to continue pillaging the land. That's why Maathai got that Nobel Prize.

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