This footloose scribbler loves to read, so for some of my blog posts I’ve decided to post book reviews having to do with the places I’ve traveled. Enjoy!
I only recently found out about Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai. I discovered her for myself when I went shopping for children’s books for the Dihlabeng Christian School in Clarens, South Africa. One of the books I bought was called, “Seeds of Change: Wangari’s Gift to the World,” by Jen Cullerton Johnson and Sonia Lynn Sadler. The beautifully illustrated book tells the simplified story of how Wangari Maathai began the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. I was intrigued.
I bought the audio version of her memoir called “Unbowed: My Autobiography by Wangari Maathai.” It is beautifully narrated by the Nigerian/American actress Chinasu Ogbuagu; she makes you feel that you are listening to Wangari herself. I highly recommend the audio version for the musicality of the narration.
Wangari Maathai was an amazing woman: from a simple childhood with a rural family, she grew to become one of the strongest leaders of the pro-democracy movement in Kenya. She attributes her success not to being brave, but to being persistent.
The memoir begins with her childhood, growing up in the central highlands of the British colony of Kenya with her Kikuyu family, one of the largest ethnic groups in Kenya. The natural world was very much a part of their world, and Wangari writes beautifully of how the environment supported and sustained their people. Wangari then takes the reader through her catholic school education in Kenya, her university studies in America, and her doctoral studies in Germany and at the University of Nairobi where she became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a Ph.D and become an associate professor and chair of a department (Department of Veterinary Anatomy).
It is not until the second half of the book that Wangari tells us how she began a movement to plant trees. Initially, planting trees was done as a way to help restore the environment that had been ravaged all over Kenya, it was also a way to give rural women jobs. But as Wangari pressed on, it quickly changed into a fight for democratic and human rights. The pro-democracy movement grew, Wangari was jailed and had her life threatened many times, but still she persisted. She gained many international supporters as the Green Belt Movement spread worldwide and used that to her advantage. Wangari found that her best defense against the authoritarian government of President Mwai Kibaki was to take her cause to the press and garner international pressure against the Kenyan government.
I wish more Americans, especially our youth, knew about Wangari Maathai. She is an excellent example of what can be accomplished through a grassroots movement, not to mention a powerful role model for young women. She died in 2011 but her legacy lives on in the international Green Belt Movement. The Green Belt Movement is based in Nairobi, Kenya and has two satellite offices, one in Brooklyn, New York and the other in London, England. You can find out more about the movement, and about Wangari Maathai, here. And I highly recommend you read the book Unbowed: My Autobiography by Wangari Maathai or buy Seeds of Change: Wangari’s Gift to the World for your child or students.