Unbowed a memoir vintage, p.1

Unbowed: A Memoir (Vintage), page 1


Unbowed: A Memoir (Vintage)

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Unbowed: A Memoir (Vintage)

  Acclaim for Wangari Muta Maathai and


  “Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement demonstrate the solutions that will bring new light to Africa. I hope the world will support her vision of hope.”

  —Nelson Mandela

  “Wangari Maathai is a prophet for our time and Unbowed is a call to arms for all of us who feel that the planet is overwhelmed by careless, corrupt or violent leadership. Read this book and pass it on.”

  —Alexandra Fuller,

  author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

  “Essential reading.”

  —The Sunday Times (London)

  “[An] honest, compelling and heartfelt… story of a brave woman's struggle in the face of daunting odds.”

  —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

  “An eloquently written story…. Maathai could lull a lion with her voice.”

  —The Philadelphia Inquirer

  “Wangari Maathai's story is more than that of one woman's struggles. … It is also the story of Kenya, Africa, and the world. Her life is a triumph of good over evil.”

  —Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, author of Wizard of the Crow

  “For those who are still struggling to find what ‘sustainable development’ really means in practice, you need look no further than Wangari Maathai's own life.”

  —Jonathon Porritt,

  Co-Founder and Program Director

  of Forum for the Future

  “A powerful autobiography of personal and political struggle, this book is colorful and nostalgic, but with strong, underlying messages, which have shaped Maathai's political and environmental cause.”

  —New Agriculturalist

  “Wangari Maathai represents an example and a source of inspiration for everyone in Africa fighting for sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

  —The Norwegian Nobel Committee, October 8, 2004

  Wangari Muta Maathai


  Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1940. She is the founder of the Green Belt Movement, which, through networks of rural women, has planted over forty million trees across Kenya since 1977. In 2002, she was elected to Kenya's Parliament and in 2003, she was appointed assistant minister for the environment. In 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She lives and works in Nairobi.




  The trees of the field will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops; the people will be secure in the land. They will know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke and rescue them from the hands of those who enslaved them.

  —EZEKIEL 34:27 (NIV)



  1. Beginnings

  2. Cultivation

  3. Education and the State of Emergency

  4. American Dream

  5. Independence—Kenya's and My Own

  6. Foresters Without Diplomas

  7. Difficult Years

  8. Seeds of Change

  9. Fighting for Freedom

  10. Freedom Turns a Corner

  11. Aluta Continua: The Struggle Continues

  12. Opening the Gates of Politics

  13. Rise Up and Walk

  Epilogue: Canopy of Hope

  Afterword to the Anchor Books Edition

  Appendix: Konyeki na ithe, or “Konyeki and His Father”


  Writing a memoir was like walking down my journey through life of some sixty years. It brought up many memories and reflections of past and current events, relationships, friendships, and collaborations, as well as times of great difficulty and great joy.

  Along the journey, I never walked alone. I have been supported and assisted by many people, who shaped my life through the experiences I shared with them. At the beginning were my parents, who held me by the fingers and led me when I did not know where to go, I did not know right from wrong. Then there were my teachers, as I moved from one school to another and embraced their ideas and values. Of particular importance were the nuns, both in Kenya and the United States of America. There were some like Prof. Reino Hofmann, who gave me the chance to prove myself as a teacher and a scientist.

  Then there are those people I met only once or infrequently in my life; yet even they left their footprints on my path. I may remember their names but not their faces or vice versa, but they nevertheless shaped my life and destiny. It is not possible to mention them all by name, but I would like to thank all of them collectively, so that if they come across themselves reflected in these pages they will know that their part in this journey is deeply appreciated.

  I am especially indebted to those directly involved in making the production of this book possible. For their unwavering patience and persistence, I wish to acknowledge Mia MacDonald and Martin Rowe. Some years back, they came to Nairobi, introduced themselves, and let me know that they would like to help me write my story. I told them I had my hands full and that I was working on a new edition of my book, The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and Experience, and had already developed a rough manuscript. They offered to assist me with it, and through Martin's company, Lantern Books, it was published in the United States in 2003.

  During the production of this memoir they have worked with me skillfully and professionally. Mia was with me when the news of the Nobel Peace Prize was announced. In the hours and weeks that followed she joined the staff of the Green Belt Movement, friends, and volunteers who answered the countless press calls and questions, and assisted with writing and other communication needs. Besides publishing The Green Belt Movement, Martin aided in the development of our presence on the Internet, especially for the North America office. Their support for me and the Green Belt Movement is greatly appreciated.

  Thanks are also due to my agents, Robert Kirby and Zoe Pagnamenta at PFD. I especially wish to thank my editor at Knopf, Erroll McDonald, for his warm encouragement and support. Others who have been closely connected with bringing together information and details include Alan Dater, Sr. Thomasita Homan, and Lisa Merton, as well as others. Staff and members of the Green Belt Movement both in the office and in the field assisted with aspects of research and field visits. For all of their dedication and support I am deeply indebted.

  In writing this memoir and reading other works, I sometimes came across information that either reinforced what I already knew to be the case or informed me anew in a way that warrants special recognition and acknowledgment. Among these I wish to recognize, for their important scholarly contributions, Stephen Ndegwa for his thesis on the Green Belt Movement in The Two Faces of Civil Society: NGOs and Politics in Africa; R. Mugo Gatheru for Kenya: From Colonialism to Independence, 1888-1970; Caroline Elkins for Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya; and David Anderson for Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. I also wish to thank all participants of the Jubilee 2000 campaign for their strength, commitment, and support in this campaign, especially in Africa, and DATA (Debt, Aid, Trade, Africa) for their reports and work on how to make poverty history.

  In addition, I want to extend my deepest appreciation to those who have been there for me and for the Green Belt Movement, over many years, in good times and bad. For all their steadfast friendship, insight, and financial and moral support, I wish to acknowledge wonderful friends with whom I have walked this journey so far. I cannot mention all of them by name, but there are those friends such as Huey Johnson, Richard Sandbrook, Oscar Mann, Gary Gallon, the late Anil Aggarwol, and others who literally drafted me into the Environment
Movement in 1973 in Nairobi during a time when they created the Environment Liaison Center (ELC), later the Environment Liaison Center International (ELCI). And those such as Maurice Strong, the first Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, who not only supported our first efforts at ELC but passed the legacy to his successor, Dr. Mustafa Tolba of Egypt, whose support and encouragement were largely responsible for our survival and growth during those early years.

  Indeed the work of the Green Belt Movement over the past thirty years would not have been possible without the encouragement and support of our many friends around the world. It is virtually impossible to mention all of them by name. I want to thank in a very special way my friends and great supporters of the Green Belt Movement: There are friends who worked closely with me, such as Margaret “Peggy” Snyder of UNIFEM, and the late Bella Abzug and Mim Kelber of the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). Others include friends such as Joshua Mailman and Helvi Sipilä. I wish to acknowledge my friends of many years, Elin Enge, Halle Jørn Hanssen, Tone Bratteli, Ed Posey and Liz Hosken of the Gaia Foundation, Roger Northcott and my friends at Tudor Trust, Tracy, Marchioness of Worcester, and Margaret Baxter of Comic Relief.

  When I met Steven and Barbara Rockefeller I would not have suspected the road we would walk, starting at Kykuit with friends such as Mary Evelyn Tucker, Oscar Arias, and all the others involved in the leadership of the Earth Charter initiative.

  I also wish to thank the people of Germany for making me so welcome forty years ago, both at the University of Giessen and University of Munich. The fond memories of Giessen, Berlin, Munich, and the beautiful and green countryside have stayed with me and been a source of inspiration. Many years later, the Heinrich Böll Foundation established a working partnership with us on green issues, good governance, and development in Kenya.

  I also want to thank certain individuals who during the more difficult days provided me and the Green Belt Movement with sanctuary, or used their influence to get us out of harm's way. One of them is Dr. Klaus Toepfer, the just-retired Executive Director of UNEP, and the many wonderful people of the United Nations Environment Programme. They offered a literal and metaphorical haven during some of the difficult days. During the times of the efforts to reintroduce multiparty politics back into Kenya, the words and actions of then Ambassador of the United States of America Smith Hempstone; Ambassador Bernd D. Mutzelburg of Germany; Arman Aardal, Norway's representative to UNEP; and many of their colleagues in the diplomatic circle gave much needed support to me and the Green Belt Movement. When I needed to hide and remain underground, it was the voice and the intervention of friends like former Vice President Al Gore, former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, Senator Nancy Kassebaum, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Kerry Kennedy of the Robert Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights who made it possible for me to come out of hiding, walk the streets, and travel out of the country without harassment and intimidation. One never forgets such moments, events, and friends.

  I also wish to thank the members of the National Council of Women of Kenya, who entrusted me with their leadership for many years; the press, both in Kenya and around the world, which allowed my voice and that of others crying in the wilderness to be heard and respected; and my constituents in Tetu, who honored me with their votes so that I could represent them in Parliament. Subsequently, I was honored by President Mwai Kibaki, who appointed me as an Assistant Minister of Environment in the Kenyan government.

  I have been the fortunate recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, some of which are mentioned in the book. Let me say here that I am profoundly grateful for the recognition extended to my work, and I will strive to live up to the trust that has been placed in me by the many distinguished universities and colleges throughout the world, which have so generously honored me. Quite obviously, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 placed an invaluable jewel in the crown. It has been an extremely humbling experience.

  Since 2004I have been touched and energized by the enthusiasm of many friends, old and new. Many of them came quickly to provide the support so badly needed by the staff of the Green Belt Movement and me as we struggled to deal with the immense attention and the demand for information and answers. In New York one of the circles of friends formed around Mary Davidson of The Marion Institute, Carter Via of Bridges to Community and White Plains Presbyterian Church (which also provided free office space to the Green Belt Movement International). Other friends, such as Daniel Martin, Scott Lethbridge, Frances Moore Lappé, and Anna Lappé of the Small Planet Institute have all been involved in supporting the Green Belt Movement and the development of the Green Belt Safaris. Others such as Morten Eriksen have been instrumental in the development of new initiatives on how to institutionalize the learning experiences at the Green Belt Movement.

  In Japan we initiated a campaign known as mottainai, which borrows on the rich Japanese culture and emphasizes the need to reuse, reduce, and recycle: to not waste, and to be grateful for and appreciate what we have. This goes well with the Japanese tradition of gift-wrapping with a cloth known as furoshiki. If those who are affluent and technologically advanced can lead the way toward sustainable management, good governance, justice, and equity, we might preempt many conflicts over the access and control of resources.

  None of this journey would have taken place without the spirit, courage, and dedication of the people, especially the thousands of women who believed in me and started to plant trees alongside me in Kenya, and stood up for the environment when it became necessary to do so. Foremost among them were the women of the National Council of Women of Kenya, under whose auspices the idea that evolved into the Green Belt Movement was born, nurtured, and developed. Among the members of the Executive Committee who stayed through thick and thin were Miriam Wanjiru Chege, Lilian Wanjiru Njehu, Rahab Wanjiru Mwatha, Jane Ngugi, and the late Pricilla Mereka and Lucy Ng'ang'a. Others include my special friend and colleague of many years Professor Vertistine Mbaya of the University of Nairobi, whose friendship, commitment, and counsel have been invaluable. The greater success of the Green Belt Movement lies in the work of tens of thousands of women and men, who toil over the millions of tree seedlings they plant, water, and nurture to maturity. I know that I cannot thank them all by name. Therefore, I hope that whenever they or their relatives pick up this book and identify with the story they will accept my statement of gratitude for the faith in our vision of a green, just, and democratic society.

  I have a large extended family and it is impossible to recognize all those who have touched my life in a special way. But I do thank all of them for whatever role they played in my life. I do have some special people who have been at the center of my life, and who have filled it with hope and joy. First are my parents, especially my mother, who embodied strength, wisdom, endurance, and faith. Another is my eldest brother, Nderitu Muta. Finally, and in a very special way, are my children, Waweru, Wanjira, and Muta. The path of my life did not make it easy, especially for them. However, they have grown up with grace and compassion, and I am proud of each one of them. All of the work I have done and continue to do—for Kenya, the environment, and peace—I have done and continue to do for them, and for the generations that will follow. When the road bends and I have no idea what will emerge, I think of them and gain the courage to follow the curve and walk forward, though the path ahead be yet untrodden. They are my hope and they give me a sense of immortality.



  I was born the third of six children, and the first girl after two sons, on April 1, 1940, in the small village of Ihithe in the central highlands of what was then British Kenya. My grandparents and parents were also born in this region near the provincial capital of Nyeri, in the foothills of the Aberdare Mountain Range. To the north, jutting into the sky, is Mount Kenya.

  Two weeks into mbura ya njahl, the season of the long rains, my mother delivered me at home in a trad
itional mud-walled house with no electricity or running water. She was assisted by a local midwife as well as women family members and friends. My parents were peasant farmers, members of the Kikuyu community, one of forty-two ethnic groups in Kenya and then, as now, the most populous. They lived from the soil and also kept cattle, goats, and sheep.

  At the time of my birth, the land around Ihithe was still lush, green, and fertile. The seasons were so regular that you could almost predict that the long, monsoon rains would start falling in mid-March. In July you knew it would be so foggy you would not be able to see ten feet in front of you, and so cold in the morning that the grass would be silvery-white with frost. In Kikuyu, July is known as mworia nyoni, the month when birds rot, because birds would freeze to death and fall from the trees.

  We lived in a land abundant with shrubs, creepers, ferns, and trees, like the mĩtũndũ, mĩkeu, and mĩgumo, some of which produced berries and nuts. Because rain fell regularly and reliably, clean drinking water was everywhere. There were large well-watered fields of maize, beans, wheat, and vegetables. Hunger was virtually unknown. The soil was rich, dark red-brown, and moist.

  When a baby joined the community, a beautiful and practical ritual followed that introduced the infant to the land of the ancestors and conserved a world of plenty and good that came from that soil. Shortly after the child was born, a few of the women attending the birth would go to their farms and harvest a bunch of bananas, full, green, and whole. If any of the bananas had ripened and birds had eaten them, the women would have to find another full bunch. The fullness expressed wholeness and wellness, qualities the community valued. Along with the bananas, the women would bring to the new mother's house sweet potatoes from her and their gardens and blue-purple sugarcane (kĩgwa kĩa nyamũirũ). No ordinary sugarcane would do.

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