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Wangari Maathai’s First Person Experience in “Unbowed: A Memoir” Report

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Updated: Mar 23rd, 2022


The book ‘Unbowed- a memoir’ is a work of Professor Wangari Maathai. Just as indicated by the title of the book, it portrays memoir of the writer. The content of the book is basically an account of history that is expressed by the writer. She comes out in the book to discuss account of her life on the basis of first person’s experience. She also enlists her efforts towards the society.

The outline of the book describes the lifeline of the author that starts from her youth up to her adult life. She, for example, outlines how against difficult circumstances, she managed to pursue education in a generation when education was reserved for the boy child. She managed to survive these harsh conditions to get a university degree that she furthered to earn her PhD.

In the book, she recorded her successes in leadership as well as in the academic field. Apart from being the first woman to head a department in a university in her country Kenya, she was the first female to be awarded a PhD in the whole of east African region. The book also illustrates her social life and touches on various issues including her life in marriage.

The book also talks about the author’s involvement in social activities that were meant to help and empower women in her society. Such were the cases of the green belt movement that the author founded in which women were financially empowered in a move to give them incentives into planting trees. This particular move was also her involvement in environmental development; a subject that also forms part of the book.

Wangari Maathai: Biography

Wangari Maathai is a Kenyan citizen from the central region of the country. She was born in the year 1940 and grew up to receive basic education.

She was born at a time and to a society which never gave much value to education. To this society, a girl was not of much significance and educating a girl was really not a necessity. It is therefore true to posit that Wangari had luck on her side to have been allowed to attend a school. She subsequently received her primary and secondary education before getting the opportunity to advance her education in the US.

At the United States, Maathai undertook her undergraduate studies in Mount St. Scholastica College. She pursued a course in science through which she earned her bachelors degree in biological studies. She then went ahead to earn her masters degree two years later from the university of Pittsburg in the year 1966.

This was, however, not satisfactory for her and she embarked on her doctoral degree which she attained in the year 1971. Though she undertook her studies for the doctoral degrees in both Germany and her own country Kenya, she later got the honors from the University of Nairobi in Kenya. She then worked with the University of Nairobi as a lecturer and later served as the chairman of the university’s department of anatomy.

This was outstanding because she was the first woman to serve in that capacity in any Kenyan university. She was also recognized as the first woman in the entire East African region, a collection of three countries, to attain a doctoral degree. She was also the first female in the region to be awarded the honor of associate professor and later a professor (UON 1).

Wangari’s outstanding performance was not limited to academic works. She became an influential member of council of women which was a national organization for women in Kenya. She joined the council in the year 1976 and had by the year 1981 been recognized in the organization which identified her efforts and offered her the opportunity to participate in its leadership. She was the chairperson of the body for about six years starting in the year 1981.

She also developed interest in social activities which culminated to her efforts to aid tree planting for the restoration and maintenance of the natural vegetation which had started facing degradation. She took advantage of her active role in the national organization of women to empower women groups which she again used to plant trees. The move that started in the year 1976 was spread through women groups to gain a grass root support.

This witnessed many women joining the move and campaign that led to the plantation of about twenty million trees in public social and private lands by women who contributed to her move. Her campaigns into tree planting was later extended to be a continental move with the formation of green belt movement that spearheaded tree planting in African countries.

The move was also well received in the other countries. Her campaigns were later extended to fights for democracy in her country, Kenya, where she was active together with others in the war for human rights. Wangari Maathai has for her efforts received a number of honors that have included Nobel peace prize. Other awards that she has received include “the Sophie prize, the Petra Kelly prize for environment, the conservation scientist award and outstanding vision and commitment award” (UON 1).

Most of her awards are international prizes that portray her as an international figure. She has in addition been involved in the United Nations boards among other involvements in international organizations. Her leadership role has also been felt in her country’s political arena in which she became a member of the Kenyan national assembly and an assistant minister in the country’s executive arm of government (UON 1).

While the life of Wangari Maathai has been viewed as that of great success with respect to the contributions that she has made to developments and her achievements in academic fields and activism, her personal social life has not been particularly smooth. Her establishment as an activist was for instance facilitated by her former husband’s political position.

As he sought political office in the year 1974, her husband made a promise to undertake tree planting activities to the region that he was to represent. It was from this political perspective that Maathai started the environmental campaigns into tree planting.

Her marriage however failed to work as her husband later walked out on her. She was left with her three children and a divorce was to follow. The reasons for the divorce that was filed by her husband was on the basis that she had proved to be uncontrollable, contrary to the expectation that as a woman and an African woman for that matter, she was supposed to be completely submissive to her husband. This did not however deter her goals to success.

Concerns of the Book

The missions of the author that she revealed in her encounter with her country and the world at large is a combination of social and public concern. The book, for example, highlights a number of issues that are of social value as well as those that are of public interest. Social concerns refer to concerns over behavior of organisms and how such organisms relate with each other. A description of the life of the author as well as her interaction with other individual thus illustrates social concerns.

The term public on the other hand refers to the developments that cover eternity of a population. Public concerns go beyond social issues to include politics and even economic issues in a set up. One of the issues that the author portrays is the capacity to focus on success. Her strife for success is evident from a personal point of view to the general point of view. The first instance that illustrated the drive to succeed by the author was her academic achievements.

Born in a set up that had low regard for education at the time, Wangari Maathai struggled against all odds to gain access to and pursue academics. She did not just limit her success to education to the then recognized standards in her country or to any women in her society that she could look up to, but did her best to gain the best possible out of education. The autobiography of the author also revealed her social concerns over the issues about women in the society.

Her involvement and success in the national women’s conference in her country is another illustration of concern that she had over women. That is why she went to interact with them and at the same time offered leadership to them. Social torture due to segregation and discrimination also formed part of the concerns that are raised in the book. While in the United States of America pursuing her studies, Wangari Maathai experienced social degradation that was directed to the non white people.

Illustration of the fights for civil rights in the country at that time and cases of racial discrimination that were coupled with the assassination of Kennedy, the then American president were raised in the book. Through the book Wangari described her ordeal in marriage life to discuss social marital issues in the African society. The cultural set up of the African society is revealed in which women are expected to be submissive in marriage and totally obedient and dependent of their husbands.

A woman is for instance portrayed to be under the husband in every aspect for a peaceful coexistence. This actually formed the basis of her divorce as her husband felt threatened by her success. Her academic position became a threat to her husband who felt a threat of loss of control of the wife as per the traditions.

A divorce application was then to follow. She also described the harshness that the society induced on a person who was already in a suffering state. Following her husband’s application for divorce, her employer, the University of Nairobi, which was managed by men, added to Maathai’s sorrows by striping her off her job and withdrawing services that had been allowed to her as an employee. She thus described a socially insensitive society.

The concerns raised by the author also bordered across social issues to cover public concerns not just in her immediate society but to her entire continent and the world at large. The quest to preserve the environment that started in Kenya and later spread across all of Africa is an example.

She illustrated how social downfall can be converted into success as this move was stimulated by her divorce. Her involvement in mobilizing and empowering women to plant trees was more of a public move as well as a private social initiative of giving back to the society.

She also revealed public issues that concerned her country whose leaders acted as puppets to the government of the United States to help Americans in the cold war motives. Kenya was used during the cold but after which the Americans turned hostile to the regime. It was quite ironical that the American government turned to criticize the same government that it had been tolerant to during the cold war period.

This criticism was, however, beneficial to the Kenyan people as it facilitated the multiparty democracy, a war that Wangari Maathai was part of. Her public ordeal was also expressed when she joined her country’s legislative system in the year 2002 and served in the country’s executive arm of the government. The book thus describes the leadership roles played by the author in both social and public aspects (Maathai 1).

The main Characters in the Book

The book is basically an autobiography of the author, Professor Wangari Maathai. Its outline revolves around her with instances and experiences that she came across in her life. The author is therefore the sole main character in the book. She can be categorized as a social entrepreneur.

This is because her ventures that included the possession, innovation and implementation of ideas were aimed at investing for the benefit of the society as a whole. The initiatives that she attributed to herself and which are actually true were in general terms geared towards the benefit of the general public.

Initiatives such as the tree planting drive that later led to the development of the green belt movement was an environmental conservation move for the entire ecosystem of the society. Her later involvements such as the campaigns for writing off of debts owned by poor countries were another instance of a public initiative for the society. Contrary to personal attributes such as private commercial investments, the Nobel Prize winner has been credited with a number of global prizes for her social initiatives.

Significance of Maathai’s Work

The initiatives of Wangari Maathai have been significantly felt not only in her own country but also at the international community. Her initiative for tree planting was, for example, successful with records of about thirty million trees being planted following the initial initiative. The significance of the tree planting exercise as it was felt in Kenya was also what led to its adoption in other African countries that later adopted it both under the green belt movement and as independent national initiatives.

Her recognition by the international community that also led to her winning the Nobel peace price, a globally adored award, following her initiatives was also an indication of the success of the moves that she made. Wangari Maathai’s significance was also felt in her own country where she has always been at the fore front in the fight to protect environment. She was, more than once, in controversy with the country’s former regime over grabbing of forest lands and recreational facilities.

Though she was brutally assaulted in her campaigns, she succeeded in opposing moves by former governments to grab lands such as Karura forest, arboretum and Uhuru Park. These grabbings were being driven to award political cronies of the then president. Her influence is still being felt as she contributes to sittings in the United Nations general assembly as well as her continued social campaigns in her country.

Means to Accomplishment of her Social Objectives

From the works of Maathai, her social responsibility has been evident in the protection of the environment as well as leadership among women. Though she has been at the forefront as the initiator and leader of her social programs, her success has been originating from people. This has been true even outside her political activities. Her ability to draw grass root support was particularly evident in the year 2002 when she vied for a parliamentary seat and won by more than ninety percent.

Her initiatives such as the first tree planting exercise were particularly achieved through the participation of women in Kenya whom she mobilized for the activity. Her anti government campaigns were successful and were achieved through organized protests in which significant number of people, significant enough to stop a government, participated.

Though she attracts and moves with the crowd towards attaining her objectives, Maathai does not allow the crowd to drive her from her principles. This was particularly the case in the year 2007 when she refused to yield to tribal pressure from her tribe that called for her support of the then president who was her fellow kikuyu. She stood by her principles that cost her parliamentary seat.

Most important points made by the author and how she tried to prove them

The author addressed a number of issues that ranged from personal life to social and political activities. Some of the major points that she illustrated under her experience included being principled, being success oriented and socially accountable among others. The story line of the life and experience of Wangari Maathai, whether as revealed in her success or in her failures, are based on sticking to and pursuing what she believes in.

Considerations of her illustrated set backs such as her divorce and her lost parliamentary seat were particularly due to her being principled to what she believed in. Her marriage was also lost due to her power which was a threat to her husband’s desire for manly supremacy. Wangari, being faced with problems such as isolation and discrimination refused to bow down to the traditional demands of men’s dominance in her society and moved on.

Her failure to retain her parliamentary seat was also due to rejecting the sycophancy of tribal game that that her tribe wanted from her. Her successes such as environmental campaigns among others have also been driven by the principle to fight for what she believes is right no matter what it costs. Her pursuit to success as well as the effectiveness in academic life and social responsibility had been based on her principles from which she dedicates to whatever she identifies to undertake.

Evaluation of the book

The biography of Maathai is impressive to me on a personal evaluation. The whole life history, both with respect to her success or failures that turn out to give the basis of her qualities, are influential. Circumstances that influence me about the book include Maathai’s education, her divorce as well as her struggle to attain what she believed in.

Her academic achievement is impressive to me because of the nature of the environment from which she came. In her country as well as other third world countries, education for girls is still being considered a luxury even after more than half a century after she managed to acquire education to a doctorate level.

This illustrates her extra ordinary nature in regard to her society. The way in which she handled her divorce is also impressive in that contrary to the expectation of the weak nature that was expected of women in the society and the complete dependence of women upon men, Maathai proved her society wrong and actually gained strength from the divorce.

It was after the divorce that she started active involvements in social responsibility which has been successful. Her involvement in social responsibility is also impressive in the way in which she has been able to put self interest aside and conduct initiatives for the general benefit of the society.

The book through the qualities of Wangari Maathai has offered me an insight into social entrepreneurship regarding properties such as being selfless, principled and determined. This is because these properties form the basis of the success that the author has made in her life time.

Though the book is based on the biography of an individual who lived in a different environment from me as well as longer time period, there are a number of personal experiences that I have had in life that relates to the themes of the book. Some of the experiences include academic success, though not to her level and participation in social forums such as youth groups.

Though the book is comprehensive, it left out some important issues about the author such as her winning of the Nobel peace price award which is a motivational factor to readers. The award being the highest ever won by the subject ought to have been included to portray the actual significance that her efforts have yielded.

The illustration of the book especially under social responsibility points out to the required participation at both individual and even organizational levels to the society. The corporate responsibility and diplomatic involvements in social duties should not be based on personal interest but on societal interests. The content of the book is satisfactory from my personal point of view and I like every aspect of it.


The presentation of the author’s life to success in her academics which later made her successful in her social responsibilities is inspiring. Her sponsorship into academic success being a form of social responsibility drives the feeling that social responsibility towards individual people can empower and influence them to give back to the society in a more productive way. The book has thus inspired me to invest in social responsibility for an improved society in future.

Works Cited

Maathai, Waangari. Unbowed: A Memoir. Anchor Books. London: UK, 2007. Print.

UON. Prof. Wangari Muta Maathai. University of Nairobi, 2011. Web.

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