Prof. Wangari Muta Maathai is the first woman in Africa to win the Nobel Peace Award, which crowned her international recognition in the field of environmental conservation. Unbowed: One Woman’s Story is her memoir.
Written in chronological order, the narrative is simple and descriptive. The book is divided into 13 chapters and an epilogue. It ends with a short story, which Prof. Maathai says was narrated by one of her aunts. Former US President, Bill Clinton, prefaces the memoir, but it has no introduction.
The narration takes the reader through Maathai’s formative experiences in Nyeri District in Central Kenya, where she was born into a polygamous family in 1940. Kenya was under British colonialism at the time and this reality shaped social relations. Maathai then traces her school years in her home district, and at Loreto-Limuru, near Nairobi, and later St Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, USA, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, and the University of Pittsburg in Pennsylvania, where she achieved a master’s degree in biology. In tracing these progressions, she reflects on the major events of the time including Kenya’s independence, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the civil rights campaign.
Maathai then turns to her adult life. She recalls her employment at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi in 1966, though she was not a veterinary doctor; the start and break-up of her marriage; her election to the leadership of the National Council of the Women of Kenya (NCWK); and the foundation of the Green Belt Movement. She recounts her battle of wills with Kenya’s political elite over various environmental issues including deforestation. The narrative ends with her election to Parliament, in December 2002, when a new government came to power, and her reception of the Nobel Award in September 2004. Interestingly, Maathai avoids relating her impressions of post-2002 Kenya.
Maathai’s memoir has several strengths. For one, it espouses the linkage between localised environmental issues and the broader national developmental issues. Two, it captures the double oppression of women, as part of the oppressed population and specifically as women, and provides useful insights on their mobilisation, particularly rural women. Three, it underscores the point that it is not enough to have ideas; ideas must be backed by conviction and action. And four, the book presents the Green Belt Movement as a model; the model may not be replicated elsewhere as it is, but at least it offers important generic lessons.
These strengths notwithstanding, Unbowed: One Woman’s Story leaves readers, particularly those well versed with Kenya’s political issues, with many unanswered questions. While one can forgive her romantic views of pre-colonial Kenya, and her thinking on Kenya of the 1950s, Prof. Maathai’s analysis of Kenya’s post-independence political era could be further developed. The dynamics of Kenya’s political system are complex and deeply inter-linked, yet Prof. Maathai’s critique of the political and identity issues in Kenya comes across as simplistic.
Moreover, the attitude of Kenya’s post-independence elite towards fundamental issues such as nationhood, national identity and socio-economic policies was to a large extent influenced by the global ideological rivalries between the Cold War warriors and continental political movements such as Pan-Africanism. Similarly, the end of the Cold War caused fundamental changes in different parts of the world, including one-party states in Africa such as Kenya.
However, Prof. Maathai’s analysis of the link between these issues and her own world-views, the Green Belt Movement and the dominant political thinking in Kenya comes across as incomplete and lacking full analysis. These are issues that Maathai will do well to reconsider in subsequent editions or future books.