What people see as fearlessness is really persistence. Because I am focused on the solution, I don't see the danger. Because I don't see the danger, I don't allow my mind to imagine what might happen to me, which is my definition of fear. If you don't foresee the danger and see only the solution, then you can defy anyone and appear strong and fearless.She has been in jail four times and beaten on the head twice. Not a very peaceful life for a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Her new memoir, Unbowed, is the kind of book that you put down every 50 pages and say to whomever is listening, "You're not going to believe what happened next."
-Wangari Maathai, Unbowed.
The beginning of the book is peaceful and slow-moving, a description of an African girl growing up on a farm in Kenya, but education changes everything. Unlike many African girls at that time, she was given the opportunity to go to elementary and high school, and in 1960 she was one of hundreds of Kenyans who were sent to study at colleges in the United States as part of the "Kennedy Airlift." She went on to earn a B.S. in Biology from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, an M.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Ph.D in Anatomy from the University of Nairobi, where she became the Chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976 and an Associate Professor in 1977. It was at that time that she started the Green Belt Movement, which facilitated women planting trees in their communities to combat deforestation, soil erosion and lack of water.
Then things get crazy. Unable to handle having an extremely educated and increasingly powerful wife, (he was quoted as saying that she was, "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control"), her husband left her in 1977 and proceeded to publicly accuse her of adultery and cruelty. At the time, divorce could only be granted in cases of adultery, cruelty, mental torture or insanity. After the divorce proceedings, when Maathai told a reporter that, "the only way the judge could have granted a divorce on hearsay was that he was either incompetent or corrupt," she was charged with being in contempt of court and thrown in jail. She writes about her divorce:
"[A]s I like to tell people, 'Failing is not a crime.' What is important is that if you fail you have the energy and the will to pull yourself up and keep going."For over thirty years, Maathai's life has been devoted to fighting for human rights and environmental justice in Africa as the Coordinator of the Green Belt Movement, as a member and Chairman of the National Council of Women in Kenya, as a founding member of GROOTS (Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood), and as a Co-Chair of the Jubilee Africa Campaign. In 2002 she was elected to Kenya's Parliament and was appointed Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources. In 2004 she was the first African woman, and first environmentalist, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Because of the Green Belt Movement's work, more than 100,000 women have planted 30 million trees across Kenya.
Maathai closes her book by saying,
In these times when many of us feel that we are living in a dark cloud, Maathai's story is a hopeful one because she made a positive impact not because she is a super heroine, but because of her persistence and her focus on solutions, skills we can all cultivate.
I am one of the lucky ones who lived to see a new beginning for my country. Others were not so fortunate. But I have always believed that, no matter how dark the cloud, there is always a thin, silver lining, and that is what we must look for. The silver lining may come, if not to us then to the next generation or the generation after that. And maybe with that generation the lining will no longer be thin.
Full disclosure: I requested a review copy of Unbowed from Alfred A. Knopf. I am not receiving financial compensation from Knopf to review this book.
Photo Credit: Professor Wangari Maathai plants a tree with Senator Barack Obama in Nairobi by Frederick Onyango.