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Unbowed: A memoir

Unbowed: A memoir

By Wangari Maathai
Published by New York: Alfred A. Knopf
Available from: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org
2006, 272pp, ISBN 0307263487 (Hb), US$ 24.95

During Wangari Maathai's childhood, she says, hunger was virtually unknown. The rich and moist red soil offered plenty of fruits and vegetables to the people of Kenya. This is where her story begins, among previous generations, gathering water from the rural streams, and sharing stories around a log fire in the evenings. But, such times were fast disappearing. Since the colonial period, missionaries, logging, wildlife hunting and a cash based economy brought change, and these things became accepted as progress: "I was born in an old world passing away," Wangari says.

A powerful autobiography of personal and political struggle, this book is colourful and nostalgic, but with strong, underlying messages, which have shaped Maathai's political and environmental cause. Among the childhood memories, Wangari recalls new developments that have hindered 'progress' in Kenya. She recalls a fundamental change in the Kenyan culture; beautiful baskets of natural fibres used by women to carry goods, now refined to tourist markets; replaced by plastic bags, littering the streets, and killing domestic animals.

But although she mourns a loss of understanding for the natural world, "something my mother's generation seemed to grasp," such realisations prompted her to be politically active, striving to create a sustainable, harmonised culture in modern Kenya. Undernourished people, thin livestock, soil erosion - these observations prompted her to consider for the first time the "multiple costs" of colonial reign. Something had to be done. She set her sights higher than most, progressing from high school to Makerere University, where she became the first woman in East Africa to head a university department. Unafraid to speak out about the atrocities of the Moi regime, she became a fierce political opponent to the government, suffering physical and emotional injury and imprisonment.

Her conviction, and the underlying message of the book, is that democracy does not abolish poverty or stop deforestation, by itself. That requires social commitment, as well as good governance, environmental management and a just global economic system. Historically factual, yet eloquently woven, this book offers a refreshing view of African politics and development. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, Wangari's message is simple but compelling. It is up to everyone to fight political and environmental injustice. "We owe it to the present, and future generations, to rise up and walk."

Date published: January 2007


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