I was reading Wangari Maathai’s memoir: Unbowed, One Woman’s Story at lunch one day when I was joined by a colleague. I told him I was reading her book and if he wanted he could borrow it after. He dismissed in an offhand manner, saying he knows enough from the media and doesn’t want to know more. He has this view that she was a tough, mad (very mad)woman. And I asked myself, which Wangari Maathai do people know? The one that was vilified by the Moi Government through the press proganda, most likely. I too, had in mind the image of a tough woman fighting running battles on the streets, while attempting the mostly unforgiving and unappreciated work of protecting Kenya’s environment. I am forever grateful to my other colleague who lent me her memoir. With the prior perception that I had of her from the media, and the positive outpour from the same politicians and media that vilified her after she won the Nobel Prize (everyone wanted to be associated with her!), her personal book enabled me to finally understand her story from HER own point of view. To get inside her head and see he reasoning, her motivation, her struggle and her journey through life.
The cover of Unbowed, Wangari Maathai’s memoir
Her autobiography is a journey through Kenya’s changing landscape, even as she changed with it. She was born in 1940 when Kenya’s central highlands were still green, food and water were in plenty and much of the traditional (Kikuyu) culture was in practice, although Christianity was already taking root. She grew up in a colonial period where her dad was working a colonial farmer’s land. Her mother remained a peasant farmer, but she and her brothers were sent to school. Were it not for education, Wangari remarks in her book, she would have remained in her village, married and tilled the land for subsistence. Education opened up many opportunities, and she is grateful for the decision to send her to school, which was supported by her older brother, Nderitu. While she grew up, she was very close to her mother, and remained close till her mother’s death.
Wangari is an alumnus of Loreto High School Limuru, my alma mater as well! Well, I realized this when our school published a congratulatory message in the newspaper and on our boards when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004. She received a Catholic education by nuns in primary and secondary, so you can imagine she had a rather narrow view of the world. Unlike her fellow students who went on to become nurses and teachers, Wangari wanted to go to college and further her studies. Luckily, she won a scholarship to go to the United States, where she went to another Catholic institution she fondly calls ‘The Mount’. I will let you read her adventures there for yourself, but it was a liberating experience for her.
Wangari Maathai in her graduation album in 1964. She was about 24.
Back in Kenya
After she got her master’s degree she came to Kenya, at a time when many Kenyans abroad were coming back to take up the task of nation building, soon after independence. She encountered many challenges, but finally got a job at the University of Nairobi, where she found that female lecturers were paid less than their male colleagues and proceeded to file a complaint. Eventually, their pay was increased to match that of the male colleagues. She met her long-time friend Vetistine(sp) Mbaya there who was a fellow lecturer.
I guess many Kenyans know her infamous marriage and divorce to Mathai, with whom they had three children. At one time, she (or rather her divorce) was even a topic of discussion in parliament, whereupon she was quoted in the press telling them they should focus on “matters above the neck and not below the belt”. In her book, she narrates the difficult experience from her point view, and especially regrets that her divorce became a public affair. Her husband, Mwangi Mathai, asked her to stop using her name, and in response, she added an extra ‘a’ to Mathai and became known as Wangari Maathai even unto her death.
The Environment and Human Rights
She was awarded the Nobel Prize not only for work done with The Green Belt Movement but also for her activist role against human right abuse in Kenya, especially by the Moi government. Her book is an insight into how it all started, and how she survived through the difficult years when her life was literally in danger.
Planting trees was her ‘little thing’ to save the planet.
This post has become much longer than I anticipated. I admired Wangari Maathai deeply, more so after reading her memoir. She was truly unbowed, standing up against human rights and environment abusers. In her direct memoir, we finally get to here her story from herself. However, I do wish she was an author, because there are many times in the story when I can detect the ‘ghost writer’s (white) voice.
Wangari showed that truly, there is no limit to how much just one person can achieve. From a humble background, to having presidents world over as peers and appearing on Oprah; to numerous awards and the numerous people she inspired and continues to inspire.
Wangari Maathai and Barrack Obama plant a tree
Her book was published in 2006, and it did not end on a very optimistic note for Kenya. Indeed she was right, as in 2007/2008 post election violence broke out.
Her memoir was her voice. Everybody should listen to it and hear what this woman had to say. The media, which is how we got to know (of) her, painted a ‘personality’; but her book reveals that she was human after all.
She died (of cancer) in 2011. I never got to meet her in person ;-(
Wangari Maathai, rest in peace.