I enjoyed reading Wangari Maathai's memoir, especially her childhood, and journey to early adulthood, and the final years of her work after she won the Nobel Prize. Her struggle to protect Kenyan forests and promote women's rights and advocate for environmental protection through the Green Belt Movement, especially under a repressive government regime, is admirable and inspiring.
Two things I struggled with as I read about her work with the Green Belt Movement are her tendencies to belittle Kenyans and portray herself as an absolute victim.
Because of her work, Maathai was constantly harassed by local government authorities. During these moments, she would appeal to her international networks of friends and colleagues to encourage the Kenyan Government to put the environment before destructive developmental projects, arguing that Kenyans are too busy trying to earn a living, or not as aware of environmental conservation as people in the West are. This is a contradiction with what she claims several times about generations past who had systems of protecting the environment. She even demonstrates it through stories about growing up amongst lush rivers and forested areas in the forties and fifties.
Finally, in the face of constant adversity, it may be inevitable to take the tone of a victim, constantly attacking the mechanisms and institutions that prevent one from doing their work. Maathai falls into this trap, which diminishes her heroism and struggle. As a woman who achieved such prominence, she could have held her head up a little higher, especially in her lucid writing, to give a more powerful account of the years she spent building the Green Belt Movement.
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.