She Plants Trees

Book cover
Unbowedby Wangari Maathai

Knopf. 352p $24.95

No one’s life runs a straight course. There are arrows and roadblocks and turns we take that influence the subsequent journey. The remarkable life of the Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, is no exception. In this insightful memoir, Maathai chronicles the twists and turns of a path that leads her from a rural childhood in the Kenyan highlands to a life of political and environmental activism.

Born in 1940, Maathai spends her early childhood on her father’s compound in the Rift Valley and in her mother’s highland village. Still under British rule, Kenya during the 1940’s is politically repressive yet green. Her father cannot own the land his family cultivates, but streams run clean. Wild fig trees, their roots holding up the water table, still dot the countryside. Managu, a green vegetable, flourishes in the fields. Immersed in the natural world, Maathai develops an early passion for cultivation.

Maathai’s vistas dramatically widen when her family decides to educate her. An industrious student, she completes classes at her local primary school and then attends Catholic boarding schools, where she converts to Catholicism and learns the value of service. Upon graduation, she qualifies for a scholarship that enables her to obtain a B.A. and master’s degree in the United States. Transformed by her experiences of American can-do optimism, Maathai returns to a newly independent Kenya, confident in the possibilities for herself and her homeland. She becomes the first woman in east and central Africa both to earn a Ph.D. and to chair a university department in Kenya.

By the mid-70’s, bad governance and single-party rule have overshadowed the early euphoria of independence, and deforestation is rapidly changing the Kenyan landscape. Maathai observes the environmental degradation, with its resulting poverty and malnutrition, and decides to organize rural women to plant trees throughout the countryside. The swatches of trees, or green belts, would heal the land, revive communities and regenerate the country’s main supply of cooking fuel. U.N. funding helps bring her idea to fruition. Amid the politically repressive decades of the 1980’s and 90’s, the Green Belt Movement grows from a modest reforestation project to a pro-democracy organization involved in struggles as diverse as planting trees for the release of political prisoners, an end to ethnic clashes, the preservation of public lands and debt relief. The prisoners are released and the public lands preserved, but at personal cost. Her experiences inspire her to develop a holistic approach to environmental protection that links preservation with good governance, and peace.

Today Dr. Maathai, the recipient of numerous international awards, is assistant minister to the Kenyan Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. Her story, however, is hardly a tale of success upon success but a testament to the truth that adversity can clarify and strengthen commitment. Failures and obstacles define her journey. Drought kills the trees in her first nursery. The mother of three, she endures a humiliating and public divorce and, at 41, finds herself without a job and down to zero. She loses miserably in two parliamentary races before her win in 2002. During her various campaigns, she is violently attacked, imprisoned and briefly forced to go underground. I don’t want to die before finishing my work, she tells a journalist. Her resilience and perseverance in the midst of her setbacks is inspiring. Because I am focused on the solution, I don’t see danger, she writes.

Although deeply personal, Unbowed is not self-absorbed. Maathai describes her maturation in the context of Kenya’s passage from British rule to independence, and her insights on Kenyan politics are relevant to many African states. She writes astutely about the trauma of colonization and the limitations of democracy in a society still focused on ethnicity and personality cults rather than the common good. The marvel of her story is that within a constrained political space, she successfully cultivates a movement that fights poverty and desertificationtwo of Africa’s starkest problems. Unbowed generously credits the various confluences that have nurtured Maathai in this effort: her Kikuyu heritage, her Catholic education, a network of international organizations and friends, and most notably the geography of her childhood:


How you translate the life you see, feel, smell, and touch as you grow upthe water you drink, the air you breathe, and the food you eatare what you become. When what you remember disappears, you miss it and search for it, and so it was with me.


Over the past 30 years, the Green Belt Movement has planted more than 30 million trees and trained 30,000 Kenyan women in forestry, food processing, beekeeping and other trades. The movement’s commitment to link tree-planting with local development has inspired a similar initiative in Armenia, which, like Kenya, is threatened with poverty-driven deforestation. Since its inception 12 years ago, the Armenia Tree Project has planted and restored more than 1.25 million trees and created hundreds of jobs for Armenia’s rural poor. Maathai could not have anticipated such a harvest.

Throughout my life, I have never stopped to strategize about my next steps, she writes. I often just kept walking along, through whichever doors open. Her words are a modest assessment for a woman who pioneered a holistic approach to environmental protection. With her learn-as-you-go wisdom and ability to persevere, faithful to her own aspirations, Maathai has helped cut a path for others.

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