Je suis Njàccaar et j’ai lu… »Unbowed » by Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai. Somehow it feels like just saying her name is enough to resume the greatness of her persona and express the deep respect we must have for her contribution to the African continent as a whole and Kenya in particular.

The importance of the environment is well known nowadays thanks to the scientific advances and the notable changes in our ecosystems due to all our foolish though that nature would always be here for us. However, doing research on Wangari Maathai before reading her book, I remember telling to myself: how can somebody go to prison and get into so much trouble just by planting trees? “Unbowed” answered my question by showing how a failed nation touched all the areas of everyday life, how the environment was linked to many of the issues raised by unscrupulous leader and citizens kept in the dark.

Wangari Maathai in herself is an historical figure even without the tremendous efforts she deployed to save Kenya’s environment. Born in a kikuyu family and raised in a polygamous compound, she lived in and with nature, cultivating crops and having enough to fulfill her nutritious needs. She lived with her family as a squatter on white settlers farms and describes what that social status meant as well as many details on how she perceived her childhood. Then came school…

We celebrate many dead or alive leaders, revolutionaries that brought change to slavery, colonisation, post-colonial dictators and neo-colonialism and it is great. However, we must express our gratefulness to the unsung heroes who are the first generation of African to have sent, willingly, their children to European schools. It is not a matter of thanking Europe for education, which is quite a topic in itself, or to express relief that we came out of “the dark ages”. But, it is to recognize the sacrifices our great grandparents made, to allow us to risk losing ourselves to get the strength and knowledge to beat the west at their own game. The atrocities of slavery and colonisation on a physical and psychological level are know, but I can only imagine the agony of parents knowing that their descendants are to embrace, at least superficially the beliefs of the oppressor. It is even more remarkable when these parents agree to send female children to school and to leave them long enough for them to reach independence. In many ways, and before official books dared to say it, they understood that the same way missionaries came to learn about our customs, culture and prepare the colonization, it was necessary for us to master the rules and arms of our oppressors. As the Grande Royale said it we needed to learn “comment gagner sans avoir raison” [win without being right]. In her case, Wangari Maathai was sent to school and went all the way to a Ph D with the support of her mother, who worked to pay her fees through her studies in Kenya as well as her older brother.

Through a program by Senator J.F Kennedy and others, Wangar Maathai and other African students gained scholarship to study in the United States. She remained there until the end of the graduate studies. During those years, I like to believe what Wangari Maathai learned that is most essential to African of the 21st century: critical thinking as well as the importance of recognizing and grabbing opportunities. The U.S is peculiar in this way; students are pushed into challenging their deepest beliefs and building consciousness through sound arguments. Ironically, capitalism kills individuality through mass media and ingenious, sometimes unethical, information management, crushes African economies but at the same time leaves open tremendous resources for those who look for them. We are asked to think critically and at the same time exposed to pre-digested ideas ready to push us in the open arms of mass consumption as well as alignment with pro-capitalist pop-culture.  In the US, Wangari Maathai got to question many things and faith is one of them. Even though, she remains a Christian after converting to it during her schooling with nuns in Kenya, she did put in perspective what was said by the nuns and learn to think more critically.

After her return to Kenya, she had to deal with other issues with her own people: gender and power. Those are still issues today so we can only imagine what must have been her experience on it couple of decades ago. Salary, pension and other rights she was entitled to as a professor were to be fought for with the government, her legitimacy as a professor to be dealt with with her students etc….In brief, life was no easy when you were educated and female. She got married with an educated man, had kids and was expected to be a superwoman. Traditional at home and outside, modern at school, a good African woman, as she said herself, she is not a superwoman but was expected to be.

There aren’t enough words for me to describe the trouble Wangari Maathai went through to support the cause she thought was right. However, I can give you facts that are by themselves descriptive enough of her struggles and determination. By 2007, 6,000 tree nurseries were established, 6,000 community based networks and over 30 million trees planted. Surprisingly enough, I have never heard of these achievements while I was in Africa, just like I have never known until recently that Maathai was the first woman from east and central Africa to receive a Ph. D. At the same time we are struggling to keep girls in school and to stop the advancement of the Sahara desert. If information is to empower how come what is relevant to our own well being goes completely unnoticed by our own people and needs to be recognized by the west and serve them as an example? That is without noting the fact that if Wangari Maathai is still alive it is also because people like Al Gore and Gorbatchev supported her which stopped the Moi administration from simply removing her from the face of this earth. It is a shame those who work for the advancement of our well being must depend on western personalities to live with basic human decency in their own countries since many oppressive leader fail to recognize elementary human rights.

Growing up in a traditional setting without the malnutrition issues Africa faces today, Maathai was one of the rare one to link our inability to feed ourselves properly, like we have been doing for centuries, to the deforestation and the implantation of foreign species. Deforestation creates soil evasion and lack of rain, dry soil etc…The foreign species are implanted for commercialization, changing the basic diet that was more adequate and makes the traditional lifestyle unsustainable. Planting local species can offset these effects which is what Maathai’s Green Belt movement did. The western countries understand that and are taking more and more measure to protect their environment while we remain the dump of the world.

Agriculture and self-sufficiency when it comes to food supply will have to be a priority for Africa on the quest to higher standard of living. The lack of machines and modern infrastructure is sometimes looked at as a handicap for the future of Africa. However, we must realize that Europe had an industrial revolution and a history of economics completely different with ours. We cannot by, simply buying machines, insure that we will be producing enough for our population. At the same time, providing machines to a still higher than average portion of the population which is in itself impossible, would raise issues of over production or needing less farmer which would create high unemployment.

My belief is that making landing usable for agriculture and allowing a large number of unemployed to farm traditionally would raise the standard of living, foster endogenous growth, destroy less natural resources and drain populations away from the African capitals. My beliefs might be overly simplistic, however what Wangari has proven that sometimes it only takes plans that seem as simple as planting trees.

Memorable Quotes

“The reality is that mother tongues are extremely important as vehicles of communication and carriers of culture, knowledge, wisdom, and history. When they are aligned, and educated people are encouraged to look down on them, people are robbed of a vital part of their heritage.” P.60

“…Many had been educated abroad, spoke English at home and in their workplaces, wore European-style clothes, and lived in European- style houses. But the wanted their “Africanness” through their wives, both at home and in society” P. 110

“ Fighting battles with women can be very difficult and sad, because both society and women themselves often make it appear that most women are happy with the little they have and have no intention of fighting for their rights. I am often confronted by women who have waited until that security called “man” is no longer available to them to remember that they should have protected their rights, irrespective of the men in their lives. That is when women will say, “You know how men are!” P. 116

“… people learn about my life and work of the green belt movement and ask me ‘why trees? The truth of matter is that the question as many answers. The essential one was that I reacted to a set of problems by focusing on what could be done.”P. 119

“Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from the land, but instill in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost.” P.138

“When we go through profound experiences, they change us. We risk our relationships with friends and family. They may not like the direction we have taken or may feel threatened or judged by our decisions. They may wonder what happened to the person they thought they once knew. There may not be enough space in a relationship for aspirations and beliefs or mutual interests and aims to unfold. For a couple, this is particularly so because most people marry young and are bound to grow and change in their perceptions and appreciation if life.” P. 139

“Nobody warned me- and it had never occurred to me- that in order for us to survive as a couple I should fake failure and deny any of my God given talents” P. 140

“Every experience has a lesson. Every situation has a silver lining. Each person needs to raise their consciousness to a certain level so that they will never give up or succumb. If your consciousness is at such a level, you are willing to do what you believe is the right thing- popular opinion notwithstanding. We do the right thing not to please people but because it’s the only logically reasonable thing to do, as long as we are being honest with ourselves- even if we are the only ones.” P. 165

Wangari Maathai’s Resume 



PhD, Anatomy, University of Nairobi (1971)

MS, Biological Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, USA (1966)

BS, Biology, Mount St. Scholastica College, USA (1964)

Personal Achievements

UN Messenger of Peace (2009-present)

Co-Chair, Congo Basin Forest Fund (2007-present)

Goodwill Ambassador, Congo Basin Forest Initiative (2005-present)

Presiding Officer, Economic Social and Cultural Council of the African Union (ECOSOCC) (2005-2007)

Founding Chair, the Green Belt Movement International (2005)

Assistant Minister, Environment, Republic of Kenya (2003-2005)

Member of Parliament, Tetu Constituency, Republic of Kenya (2002-2007)

Founding member, GROOTS International (1985)

Founder and Coordinator, the Green Belt Movement (1977-2002)

Director, Kenya Red Cross (1973-1980)

Academic Appointments

Chair, Department of Veterinary Anatomy, University of Nairobi (1976)

Associate Professor, Department of Veterinary Anatomy, University of Nairobi (1977)

Endowed Chair in Gender & Women’s Studies named “Fuller-Maathai,” Connecticut College (2000)

Montgomery Fellow, Dartmouth College, USA (2001)

Dorothy McCluskey Visiting Fellow for Conservation, Yale University, USA (2002)

Professional Affiliations

Board Member, Prince Albert of Monaco Foundation, Monaco

Board Member, The Oslo Award, Norway

Board Member, The Chirac Foundation, France

Board Member, Discovery Channel’s Planet Green, USA

Board Member, The Congo Basin Forest Fund, Tunisia

Board Member, The Global Crop Diversity Trust, Norway

Jury Member, Goldman Environmental Prize, USA

Paul Harris Fellow, Rotary International, USA

Advisory Board, Clinton Global Initiative, USA

Fellow 2004, Yale McCluskey , USA

Member, Yale Leadership Council, USA

Member, UN Commission on Global Governance, USA

Member, Advisory Board, Democracy Coalition Project, USA

Member, Earth Charter Commission, USA

Selection Committee, Sasakawa Environmental Prize,

United Nations Environment Programme, Kenya

Board Member, World Learning USA

Board Member, Green Cross International

Board Member, the WorldWIDE Network of Women in Environmental Work, USA

Honorary Degrees

Honorary Doctorate Degree, Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan (2010)

Doctor of Humane Letters, Meredith College, USA (2009)

Doctor of Science, Egerton University, Kenya (2007)

Doctor of Public Service Honoris Causa, University of Pittsburgh, USA (2006)

Doctor of Humane Letters, Connecticut College, USA (2006)

Doctor of Science, Morehouse College, USA (2006)

Doctor of Science, Ochanomizu University, Japan (2005)

Doctor of Science, Willamette University, USA (2005)

Doctor of Science, University of Nairobi, Kenya (2005)

Doctor of Science, Soka University, Japan (2004)

Doctor of Science, Aoyama Gakuin University, Japan (2004)

Doctor of Law, Yale University, USA (2004)

Doctor of Agriculture, University of Norway (1997)

Doctor of Science, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, USA (1994)

Doctor of Law, Williams College, USA (1990)


2010: Earth Hall of Fame, Kyoto (Japan)

2009: Earth Hall of Fame, Kyoto (Japan)

2009: Humanity 4 Water Award for Outstanding Commitment 2 Action

2009: The Order of the Rising Sun, Japan

2009: Judge, 2009 Geotourism Challenge, National Geographic, USA

2009: NAACP Chairman’s Award , USA

2008: Dignitas Humana Award, St John’s School of Theology, USA

2008: Cinema Verite, Honorary President, France

2008: Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Honorary Fellowship, UK

2007: The Nelson Mandela Award for Health & Human Rights, South Africa

2007: The Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, India

2007: Cross of the Order of St Benedict, Benedictine College, Kansas, USA

2007: World Citizenship Award, World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts

2006: The Indira Gandhi International Award for Peace, Disarmament & Development, India

2006: Premio Defensa Medio Ambiente, Club Internacional De Prensa, Spain

2006: 6th in 100 Greatest Eco-Heroes of All Time, The Environment Agency, UK

2006: Medal for Distinguished Achievement, University of Pennsylvania, USA

2006: Woman of Achievement Award from the American Biographical Institute Inc., USA

2006: The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Milele(Lifetime) Achievement Award

2006: Legion D’Honneur, Government of France

2006: The IAIA Global Environment Award,International Association for Impact Assessment, Norway

2006: Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund Award, USA

2005: New York Women’s Century Award, New York Women’s Foundation, USA

2005: One of the 100 Most Influential People in the World: Time magazine, USA

2005: One of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World: Forbes magazine, USA

2004: Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Norway

2004: Sophie Prize, the Sophie Foundation, Norway

2004: Elder of the Golden Heart, Republic of Kenya

2004: Petra Kelly Environment Prize, Heinrich Boell Foundation, Germany

2004: J. Sterling Morton Award, Arbor Day Foundation, USA

2004: Conservation Scientist Award, Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, Columbia University, USA

2003: Elder of the Burning Spear, Republic of Kenya

2003: WANGO Environment Award, World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations , USA

2002: Outstanding Vision and Commitment Award, Bridges to Community, USA

2001: Excellence Award, Kenyan Community Abroad, USA

2001: The Juliet Hollister Award, Temple of Understanding, USA

1997: One of 100 in the World Who’ve Made a Difference in the Environment:

Earth Times, USA

1995: International Women’s Hall of Fame, International Women’s Forum Leadership Foundation, USA

1994: The Order of the Golden Ark Award, the Netherlands

1993: The Jane Addams Leadership Award, Jane Addams Conference, USA

1993: The Edinburgh Medal, Medical Research Council, Scotland

1991: The Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership, United Nations, USA

1991: Global 500 Hall of Fame: United Nations Environment Programme, USA

1991: The Goldman Environmental Prize, the Goldman Foundation, USA

1990: The Offeramus Medal, Benedictine College, USA

1989: Women of the World Award, WomenAid, UK

1988: The Windstar Award for the Environment, Windstar Foundation, USA

1986: Better World Society Award, USA

1984: Right Livelihood Award, Sweden

1983: Woman of the Year Award

Property of Njaccaar Visionnaire Africain


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