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Friday, October 14, 2011

Review of Unbowed - One Woman's Story


I got a copy of Wangari Maathai's 2007 book, Unbowed - One Woman's Story from a friend yesterday. This friend is a budding writer whose work was included in Kwani? 06, a book I gave a critical review that was published in The East African of Feb 21 2011. Some of the writers from the Kwani? fold  met my review with angry knee-jerk reactions that took the form of who-the-Hell-is-Jacob-Aliet and he-must-be-a-failed-writer but after interacting with some of them in facebook, we became friends. Mehul Gohil, one of the writers, is actually one of the top three chess players in Kenya and an exceptional writer.
At any rate, I was in the middle of Reading John Loftus' The End of Christianity when this writer was kind enough to lend me the book.
Unbowed is a hardcover book and its going for 790/=. I think that is quite a steep price but oh well, maybe it has got something to do with the hardcover and it was published by RandomHouse. 
It is a memoir. Very well-written and the contents are well ordered with an index at the back. It enables one to know who the real Wangari Maathi was and what is amazing is how much the Moi regime succeeded in painting her as a difficult, stubborn, quarrelsome divorcee because this memoir literally peels away that unpleasant mask plastered on her by the Moi regime and enables us to see her as a beautiful, sensitive and caring woman who was brave and who displayed courage when almost everyone was cowering in the face of a powerful but irresponsible government.
The book narrates her childhood experiences, from her formative years to the times she went to study in the US under the Kennedy airlift programs until she graduated and was admitted in the University of Pittsburg. I found it interesting that her master’s thesis was on the development of the pineal gland in quails. Think about that for a minute. As a student, she was reserved and buried herself in her books and ended up being the first Kenyan woman to earn a PhD. It was a PhD in gonads so animal anatomy was her forte. The book traces her ascent from a small rural family in Nyeri to being a recipient of the Nobel Peace price and a Member of Parliament for Tetu.
The reader gets to appreciate how the world looked like through her eyes, from her early childhood, schooldays, during the state of emergency in Kenya and during Kenya's turbulent times when Tom Mboya and JM Kariuki were murdered, her falling in love with her husband, having children, and the divorce that devastated her and how she rose up from the ashes of those difficult years and became a strong woman who the Kenyan society unwittingly tried to snuff out because it was afraid to confront an abusive and destructive regime. She reminds us in the book that fear cannot provide one with security.
Almost accidentally, her life was full of struggle. She never sought trouble but her success itself, created tensions that would rip apart her family. Her passion for environment conservation placed her on a collision course with a regime that wanted to exploit the environment without a care about tomorrow. Her steadfast belief in what was right isolated her from friends and colleagues who were afraid of being compromising their comforts. Her resoluteness in the face impending death and persecution made it easy for the government to paint her as an unpleasant, loony woman out to make trouble.
She fought stigma from being an educated woman, stigma from being a divorcee, stigma from being anti-government and this stigma altered her life in many ways than one, she was repeatedly sent to jail, she was separated from family and friends, and was made to lack employment and money through systematic government smear campaigns and intimidation.
Wangari was a very educated woman, very astute, very exposed, very independent-minded, very adaptive, very passionate about trees and the environment and was a strong leader who severally engaged in selfless quests while risking her life. Indeed, the GreenBelt Movement was lucky to have this woman at its helm because her passion alone could take the movement to the greatest heights and it did. She succeeded tremendously against major odds.
She is open about her weaknesses in a manner that makes her endearing to her readers. One actually gets to behold the sensitive, tender woman that lay beneath that resolute, versatile mask that she wore as the leader of GreenBelt movement. It is also amazing how much she had "foreign" friends compared to Kenyan friends and it appears that her pillars, her support system both financially, morally and even intellectually was mainly non-Kenyan save for a handful of her Kenyan friends. Mostly educated women. No wonder she never blended seamlessly into the Kenyan political fold.
The only weakness I find in this autobiography is that whereas she freely reveals her weaknesses and vulnerabilities, she doesn’t admit her faults in the book and when faced with painful outcomes like her divorce. As such, one may think she is impervious to her own failings as a human being when she ends up presenting herself as an innocent victim who was never at fault in the difficult circumstances that confronted her. One may think that Wangari’s introspection probably didn’t have the depth that would give her the uncompromising perspective that admits responsibility for unpleasant outcomes in her journey. But this minor criticism does nothing to take away the richness of her personal story and the lessons from a life well lived.
When I reflect on her journeys, her pains and her fears. Her successes and her failures, her possessions and her needs, her passion and her aspirations. Her perspective and her vision for Kenya and for the environment, the narrative of her struggle and the way the Moi government paraded a slanted portrait of her in the media that lacked independence, and when one considers how she was admonished as a trouble-making divorcee in the Kenyan Parliament, how we watched as she was mocked and humiliated, I can only conclude one thing:
We didn't know this woman at all.

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