Unbowed: One woman’s story


Read 27/07/2020-13/08/2020

Rating 3 stars

Book 9 in my 10 Books of Summer reading challenge, a substitution in the original list.

Unbowed is the memoir of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Muta Maathai. This remarkable Kenyan woman was a child during the period of the British war against the Kikuyu people. She became a scientist, educated in Kenya, the US and Germany. She joined the environmental movement and campaigned for the re-establishment of forest in Kenya and fairer representation of women in agricultural production. She was a powerful advocate for democracy in Kenya. Her ideologies put her in conflict with Daniel Arup Moi’s government, and placed her life in danger. She was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This is what I gleaned from Maathai’s Wikipedia entry, after my best friend sent me a card printed by her sister, one in a series of inspirational women she had designed.

I wanted to know more, especially when I read that Maathai was from a Kikuyu ‘squatter’ family, of the kind described in Imperial Reckoning, and that her mother had been moved to an Emergency village. Luckily for me, my local library has a copy of her memoir, so I borrowed it. There is a chapter that refers to the Emergency and Maathai’s experience of it, but it’s clear that she didn’t think this part of her story was the most important. It seems not to have had any significance for her to who she became in later life. Nor did she seem to make the connection between the activities of the British colonial government and those of Moi’s corrupt government, from land grabs for favoured ‘friends’ to the torture of those seen as the enemy of the régime. The lessons learned by those who took the British side during Mau Mau carried on long into Kenya’s independence.

Maathai published her memoir in 2006, five years before her death. Its broad sweep covers rural Kenyan life, and the Kikuyu traditions Maathai was born into, plus the changes that came with colonisation, and the consequent devastation of the land that Maathai sought to rectify in later life. It outlines what independence was like for Kenyans like her, and what she considered to be the missed opportunities of independence in its first 40 years. As I read, it felt like Maathai was uncomfortable with the process of writing about her early life. She was a scientist, not an historian, and her writing about the part of her life when she was the decision maker, using her scientific knowledge, flows better.

The early sections, although a little stilted, include interesting topics, from the richness of the land at the time of her birth in 1940, revealing the importance of land and nature to her people, to the impact that European missionaries and Christianity had on Kikuyu beliefs and traditions. The missionaries were followed by traders who exploited Kenya’s natural resources on an industrial scale, destroying the sacred Kikuyu connection with the land.

Maathai’s own experiences in agriculture started in childhood and influenced her later interest in environmental science. As a child, Maathai witnessed many of the changes to farming and landscape that destroyed the natural ecosystem in Kenya and caused much of the hardship in the country. She also learnt how to grow and nurture plants from seeds, a skill she was later able to share with the members of the Green Belt Movement.

I appreciated reading an African perspective on the colonisation of Kenya, especially the renaming of places, the subdivision of the country into religious denominations for the missionaries to exploit, and the impact of lines drawn on a map bringing together some African nations, whose people were strangers to each other and yet fellow citizens of a new country, and dividing others. As Maathai wrote, “The consequences of these divisions continue to haunt Africa.”

The memoir includes salutary points about the ‘civilising mission’ of the British, and the way African people were separated from their language and their culture in order to be more easily controlled.

When Maathai went to boarding school, the students were expected to speak English all the time. Anyone caught speaking their own language was humiliated and punished by the teachers. I liked how Maathai used this recollection to reflect on how important African languages are as carriers of culture and knowledge, and how the British system in Kenya trivialised and made inferior anything African. In the British context, this is actually an English trait, the belittling of other cultures, that started with the subjugation of the Scots, Welsh and Irish. You see it in other cultures that have colonialism in their pasts, too – such as, but not limited to, the French in Belgium and Africa, the Spanish and Portuguese in South America, the Dutch in Africa and South East Asia.

When Maathai studied in Germany, her eyes became opened to the double standards of European colonisers who claimed traditional African culture was in direct opposition to Christianity. In Germany, traditional culture was enjoyed with no sense of conflict with Christian heritage. The Christian calendar in the West is built upon pre-Christian traditions that have been absorbed into religious celebration and ceremony. She questioned why the same couldn’t be true in Africa and sought to restore the link between traditional culture and nature.

Maathai’s education was important to her. She recognised that she was lucky to go first to boarding school in Kenya, then on to study in the USA under an initiative set up by John F Kennedy. Her time in the USA opened her eyes to discrimination against black people and opened her mind to ideas beyond the limited ones she had been exposed to at school in Kenya. It prepared her for the future role she would take in independent Kenya.

Back home in Kenya, Maathai faced discrimination based not on her skin colour but on her Kikuyu ethnicity and her gender. She didn’t let opposition stop her, and instead drew on her experiences outside Kenya to try to forge a new way of doing things. She began with a fight to secure equal benefits for female academic staff at the University of Nairobi, where Maathai was one of only two female academics in their faculty. Having just watched Mrs America, the reaction from the entirely male senior staff, and from the female academic staff in other faculties who chose the status quo over equality, was not surprising. There were later echoes of the battle between conservative women, represented by Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, and the women fighting for equal rights, led by Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, who became an ally of Maathai’s in later years. A women’s group allied with Daniel Arup Moi’s KANU party, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, suggested that Maathai had “gone astray and should seek guidance from her fellow women” in respecting men and keeping quiet like a proper African woman; just the sort of message Schlafly’s Eagles would have got behind.

Maathai’s introduction to environmental protection came through her studies into the viability of livestock. When collecting ticks for her experiments, she saw environmental changes that were disastrous for arable and livestock farming. She volunteered with environmental organisations and brought her feminism into the equation, encouraging other women to become involved, too.

The British had imported to Africa their approach to forestry, as documented in British Forests. Native trees were replaced with non-native species with higher timber yields. The Kenyan government carried on the former British policy. This led to soil erosion, rivers drying up, and a lack of firewood for traditional cooking, with the consequent change in crop farming and diet causing malnutrition in people and livestock. Crop farming had also changed from growing food for the population to growing cash crops of tea and coffee, which in turn led to deforestation to make room for more tea and coffee plantations. Maathai saw that this was a disaster. The strength of her memoir lies in what she did to try to avert the disaster.

Her battles against authority were largely down to the way Kenya’s patriarchal society viewed her. Divorced by her husband for being too educated, too independent and too difficult for him to control, she let nothing stop her in achieving her goals. Her status as a divorced woman set the authorities against her, and she fought hard to maintain her momentum in the environmental movement. At times she had nothing – no job, no home, no security – but she always found a way to continue. Her descriptions of male Kenyan attitudes to women are recognisable the world over.

Her belief in democracy was regularly challenged by Moi’s virtual dictatorship. As his administration pared away more of the rights of the Kenyan people and used corrupt means to increase the wealth and power of its cronies, Maathai resisted, and encouraged others to resist as well. She wrote about her friends’ attempts to get her to back down during a conflict over the building of a private tower block on public land.

Some of them would ask me, “Why are you putting yourself in this situation? It’s not your land. Why are you bothered? And I would reply, “Because after they are done with what is owned by the public, they’ll come for what is mine and yours.”
This was the heart of the issue. Even though the immediate struggle was over the park and the right of everyone to enjoy green space, the effort was also about getting Kenyans to raise their voices. I was distressed at the audacity with which the government was violating people’s rights, quashing dissent…

This is something that anyone living in a democracy needs to be aware of – the corruption that comes with power. It’s something that’s not the sole preserve of African nations, either. Britain and the USA, those proclaimed bastions of democracy, seem currently to be in the thick of political corruption more normally associated with tinpot dictatorships. We need to make sure our voices are heard in order that governments with the interests of others at heart don’t take away our rights.

I found another echo of recent Western politics in Maathai’s treatment by members of the KANU party which, by the time of the conflict over the high rise tower, was the sole political party in Kenya. Not being a member made life difficult. At a public rally during which a KANU member denounced Maathai’s work with the Green Belt Movement as being “nothing that Kenyans could be proud of”, the crowd shouted, “Remove her! Remove her!” For me, this had echoes of the anti-Hillary Clinton “Lock her up” chant at pro-Trump rallies during the 2016 US Presidential election campaign. The patriarchal world truly hates a strong woman.

Maathai’s strength to carry on in the face of outrageous and, too often, violent opposition and her leadership of others led to great change in Kenya. She was part of a movement to unite the factions in opposition to Moi’s KANU party. In 2002, this unification succeeded in bringing democracy to Kenya, with Moi and KANU defeated in the elections and Maathai herself elected to Parliament.

In 2004, Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize. She took the call travelling in a van with some of her colleagues. This seemed a fitting way for a woman so grounded in reality and so determined to be the person she had to be to receive one of the highest accolades the world can give.

The Green Belt Movement is still carrying out Maathai’s vision to restore the ecological balance in Kenya and other countries, a lasting legacy for this wonderful woman.

I’m so glad my best friend sent me that card, because it gave me the opportunity to read this book and learn more about Kenya, and a different history of Kenya to the one I absorbed from British-taught history.


Update 16/08/2020: an article was published in The Guardian today that shows the Kenyan government is still mismanaging wildlife habitats, granting land rights to foreign investors, and attempting to disrupt the connection between traditional culture and nature.


7 thoughts on “Unbowed: One woman’s story

  1. This is so interesting. Yes, I too worry about the undemocratic direction that far too many so-called democratic western nations are moving in. And the section about language was interesting too. The Occitan language has been all but obliterated in France because our grandparents’ generation was punished for using it. While the same thing might have happened in Catalonia, because of Spanish repression of the language, the Catalans resisted and their language is, if anything,stronger than ever. I’m woefully ignorant of any African history, though I’m not sure you’ve convinced me that this book is a good place to start. Perhaps because you’ve only given it a three star rating. Am I wrong?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t know that about the Occitan language. The Ainu in Japan also almost lost their language and culture when the Honshu ‘mainlanders’ pushed north and onto Hokkaido. Some tribes/nations/dominant factions love homogeneity, I guess.
      I gave this book 3 stars because her writing style didn’t fully engage me and I kept choosing to put it down to do other things. It’s not at all the place to start exploring African history, as Maathai’s references to the past are glancing, serving her personal narrative rather than documenting history. Which is fair enough for a memoir!
      I haven’t read much African history, either – just Caroline Elkins’ book about Kenya and the sections of David Olusoga’s Black and British, which is a good introduction to African history in the context of Britain’s meddling on that continent. Afua Hirsch’s BRIT(ISH) talks about her African heritage, too. We have Nigerian fabric collections at work and I am interested in knowing more about Nigeria and the different nations brought together through a line drawn on a map.
      There’s so much learning to do!


  2. Interesting to read the exchanges between you and Margaret; I often find a memoir the easiest entry point into an area that I know little about. I need to get a flavour, to have questions raised in my mind which I can then follow up. So I find the prospect of this book exciting in many respects.


    1. As a memoir, Sandra, it does its job reasonably well. Her immediate life story is inspirational and her frustration with the politics in Kenya jumps from the page. I did struggle with chunks of it, because it didn’t fully engage me. The snippets of context to the events in her life signpost the wider history. I found the lack of detail frustrating because, after reading Caroline Elkins’ book, I’d hoped for an African view of Kenya’s history from someone who lived through it, which this memoir definitely isn’t. I’m keeping my eyes peeled for the book that might give me what I want!


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