Wangari Maathai is a woman of the ‘firsts’. She was the first African woman to earn a PHD and to head a University Department in her native Kenya, and she later became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Published in 2007 by William Heinmann, Unbowed: One Woman’s Story is Maathai’s account of her life journey.
Born in a rural Kenyan village in 1940, Wangari Maathai stood out even as a child, determined to get an education at a time when most African girls were uneducated. She grew up in a community where learning was mostly informal, grandparents took up the roles of the teacher, and children were taught through stories, songs, riddles, and proverbs. Wangari, however, enrolled in a formal school called Ihithe Primary school where she learnt how to read and to write. She was a bold woman who could climb mountains and go down the hills in search of education. She describes her childhood environment with a lot of nostalgia.
“About two hundred yards away from the fig tree was a stream name Kanungu with water so clean, and fresh that we drank it straight from the stream. Underneath the arrowroots, there would be thousands of frogs’ eggs. They were black, brown, and white beads that I thought would make a beautiful necklace”.
She studied in Catholic mission schools. In September 1960, Maathai was one of three hundred Kenyans selected to go to America for further studies. There, she studied biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, obtaining her bachelors and masters degrees. At Pittsburgh, she came to appreciate the importance of environmental restoration as the city struggled to clean up the air. In 1965, she returned to Kenya, a country that by then, received its independence, and badly needed educated nationals to take over positions being vacated by the British civil servants. She joined the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in the University of Nairobi.
In 1975, Maathai came up with an idea to encourage people to plant trees in an effort to stave off further environmental degradation and restore the country’s indigenous forests. Women were mobilized to plant trees in their farms and they were encouraged to convince others to do the same. This gave birth to the famous ‘Green Belt Movement’. Not only did the ‘green belt of trees’ hold soil in place, and provide shades and windbreakers, it also enhanced the beauty of the landscape. Later recognizing that much of the blame for Kenya’s environmental problems lay with corrupt leaders, she took her fight to politics, becoming an outspoken critic of Kenya’s government of the time.
Maathai’s extraordinary courage and determination helped bring political change in Kenya and catapulted her to a political career. In 2004, her efforts and achievements were recognized internationally when she received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Unbowed: A Memoir (Vintage) celebrates Wangari Maathai’s remarkable achievements. Sadly, Maathai passed away on September 25, 2011.
Moses Kibe Kihiko holds a Master’s degree in Leadership Studies. He recently published his book “Public Leadership: The Ten Defining Moments How Leaders Acquire & Handle Fame, Power & Glory “with Miraclaire Publishing, Website: www.miraclairebooks.com). Moses is the CEO of Practicum Leadership, a training, consultancy, writing and research firm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.