Wangari Maathai’s legacy lives in her memoir 5 years on

This Sunday marks Wangari Maathai’s fifth memorial. She died in 2011 aged 71 of ovarian cancer and is survived by her three children: Waweru, Wanjira and Muta.

Coincidentally, President Uhuru Kenyatta in August laid the foundation stone for an ultra-modern centre at the University of Nairobi’s Lower Kabete Campus, to house the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, quite a fitting memorial and legacy for a great African and feminist.

Early on in the book Unbowed: A Memoir’s acknowledgements, Prof Wangari said of her children: “The path of my life did not make it easy, especially for them.” She continues: “All of the work I have done and continue to do — for Kenya, the environment, and peace — I have done and continue to do for them, and for the generations that will follow…They are my hope and they give me a sense of immortality.” Her daughter Wanjira chairs the Wangari Maathai Foundation.

First woman both to earn a PhD in east and central Africa, in 1971 and to head a university department in 1976, the late Prof Maathai was a woman of many firsts. She was also the first African woman and Kenyan to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Of this, she said in her Nobel speech, “As the first African woman to receive this prize, I accept it on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa, and indeed the world. I am especially mindful of women and the girl child.

“I hope it will encourage them to raise their voices and take more space for leadership. I know the honour also gives a deep sense of pride to our men, both old and young. As a mother, I appreciate the inspiration this brings to the youth and urge them to use it to pursue their dreams.”

Humble background

Unbowed explores Maathai’s humble background, including the legacy of colonialism, the (late US President John F. Kennedy) airlifts — when he was chairman of the US Senate subcommittee on Africa, initiated in part by the late Pan Africanist and trade unionist Thomas Joseph Mboya through his requests to help educate the brightest of Kenyans at the time.

Maathai’s intense passion for empowering women in rural communities, a marriage that ended painfully in divorce and shift from a budding intellectual to a fierce critic of President Moi’s rule, are all captured in great detail in the book.

When she needed to hide and lie low, “interventions of friends like former US vice president Al Gore, former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International” among others came to her aid. The long list of global who’s who underscores the impact of her selfless work on the global arena.

The book is written with a light touch, sometimes reads like it was written for a Western audience. With its reviewer being Kenyan, most of the body of work feels familiar from a historic, political and cultural context except when talking academics of course, differentiation of gonads in bovines, which was her PhD completed in 1971.

Even with all the academic papers amassed, Maathai later wrote in her book “The future of the planet concerns all of us, and all of us should do what we can to protect it. As I told the foresters, and the women, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.”

Unbowed is a fitting read in memory of a fitting homegrown, turned global icon.
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