One African’s Environmental Challenge

Susan E. Rice
Susan E. Rice Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow - School of International Service, American University

January 11, 2007

Review of Unbowed (A Memoir), by Wangari Muta Maathai.

When all else fails, plant a tree. Or 30 million trees. That’s the strategy Wangari Muta Maathai pursued, in the face of sustained persecution, to try to save the environment in her native Kenya. Mass tree-planting by the women of the Green Belt Movement, a group that Maathai founded, propelled her to international acclaim and, in 2004, made her Africa’s first female winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The award also was groundbreaking for its recognition of the critical links between environmental distress, poverty and conflict.

In her memoir, “Unbowed,” Maathai traces her life from a rural childhood through years of activism to the top ranks of the Kenyan government. In a straightforward, unadorned style, she shares compelling insights into her painful triumph over colonialism, sexism, authoritarianism and corruption. It’s quite a life, although one wishes it had made for a more revealing book.

Maathai is at her best when describing her youth and the Kikuyu culture during the waning years of Britain’s imperial rule in Kenya. She was born in 1940 in the village of Ihithe, under the shadow of Mount Kenya. Maathai paints a fascinating portrait of the cruel impact of modernity on her country’s landscape and traditions: “As long as the mountain stood, people believed that God was with them and that they would want for nothing. Clouds that regularly shrouded Mount Kenya were often followed by rain. As long as the rains fell, people had more than enough food for themselves, plentiful livestock, and peace. Sadly, these beliefs and tradition have now virtually died away. They were dying even as I was born.”

The dramatic, troubling changes that Maathai witnessed during her childhood ignited her passion for preserving the land and its natural beauty. Starting in the late 19th century, European missionaries came to East Africa and “taught the local people that God did not dwell on Mount Kenya, but rather in heaven. . . . The proper place to worship him was in church on Sundays, a concept that was unknown to Kikuyus.” Within two generations, British settlers had displaced and forcibly relocated whole villages, replaced subsistence agriculture with cash crops, transformed fertile acreage into arid wastelands and left once well-nourished peasant farmers struggling to feed their families.

Maathai’s personal history also offers a powerful chronicle of the violence that characterized both British colonialism and the Mau Mau struggle against it. Starting in 1952, Kenya’s British governor, spooked by rebels, placed “nearly a million Africans in detention camps, effectively concentration camps, and ’emergency villages’ . . . where hunger and disease were common.” Ultimately, Maathai writes, more than 100,000 Africans and 32 white settlers died during the Mau Mau uprising, and as a teenager Maathai herself was briefly detained.

Despite this grim background, she was the rare Kenyan girl allowed to attend school. She excelled under the tutelage of strict Catholic nuns and won the chance, in 1960, to study biology at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan., as part of the “Kennedy Airlift,” a program to transport African students to the United States pushed by the then-senator and paid for by his family. In 1964, she began graduate studies in biology at the University of Pittsburgh and later became, she writes, the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate.

While in the United States, Maathai encountered segregation, witnessed the burgeoning civil rights struggle and mourned the assassinated President Kennedy. Despite that tumult, she remains a great admirer of the country: “It is fair to say that America transformed me. . . . It taught me not to waste any opportunity and to do what can be done — and that there is a lot to do. The spirit of freedom and possibility that America nurtured in me made me want to foster the same in Kenya.”

Back in a now-independent Kenya, Maathai married a politician, bore three children and took up a faculty position in veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi. Then her troubles began.

Her ne’er-do-well husband felt threatened by her career and abandoned Maathai and her children. He publicly sued for divorce, falsely accusing her of adultery. As an outcast and a divorcee, Maathai was stripped of her academic appointment, evicted from faculty housing and forced to start a second career.

Already a part-time civic leader active in Nairobi women’s and environmental groups, Maathai turned her personal passion into a national phenomenon. After fits and false starts, she brought to fruition the Green Belt Movement — a national, grass-roots women’s organization, founded in 1977, that plants trees to create a natural bulwark against erosion, drought and desertification. Maathai realized that trees would also provide firewood and let local people continue to raise livestock and farm. Chapters of the Green Belt Movement have since been established in several African nations.

Maathai’s environmental work quickly assumed a political cast. She led public protests, organized opposition leaders at her home and ran for president, unsuccessfully, in 1997. Her activism was met with vicious repression from the corrupt regime of President Daniel arap Moi. Undaunted, Maathai’s agenda expanded to include battling for women’s rights, fighting the secret transfer of Kenyan public land to Moi’s cronies and documenting government-sponsored ethnic violence in the volatile Rift Valley region. She was harassed, repeatedly arrested and badly beaten by the Kenyan authorities.

Her personal experiences provide damning evidence of the brutality of a regime with which Washington had long maintained cooperative relations. Since independence, Kenya has been a relatively stable, pro-American country in a region wracked by conflict and famine. Throughout the Cold War, the United States overlooked Kenyan leaders’ authoritarianism and enjoyed ready access to the country’s bases and ports. But as the Cold War ended, U.S. ambassadors began to challenge Moi and echo the Kenyan opposition’s demands for multiparty democracy. Maathai was vindicated when Moi stepped down in 2002 and the opposition coalition prevailed at the polls. She was elected to Parliament, and President Mwai Kibaki appointed her assistant minister for the environment.

While serving in this post, Maathai received word of her Nobel Prize. Her joy upon receiving the news — she got a cellphone call from Norway in a cramped van on a rural road — is one of the more endearing moments of the book. Unfortunately, “Unbowed” is virtually silent about how the prize affected her personally and professionally.

Indeed, Maathai’s account, particularly of her adult years, is emotionally guarded, revealing little self-doubt, little of her feelings about the challenges of single motherhood and little insight into the future aspirations of a woman who is just 66. Nonetheless, her story provides uplifting proof of the power of perseverance — and of the power of principled, passionate people to change their countries and inspire the world.