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Book Club Series – Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai

“But I offered women a different mirror—my own. What is important, indeed necessary, is to hold up your own mirror to see yourself as you really are.”

Welcome to the Women for Women International Book Club! On Instagram, we asked you to suggest books for us to read this June and then vote.  

This month, you picked Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai. Founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari shares her path from a rural Kenyan childhood during British colonization, to overseas education, to professor then activist in newly independent Kenya.

What is Unbowed about?  

Written by Wangari, her memoir begins in the village of Ihithe in rural Kenya, where Wangari recounts a childhood of abundant plants and diverse vegetal life and respect was given to fig trees. Her father worked on a white-owned farm and with her mother, supported her education.  

Upon completing a Catholic schooling in Kenya, Wangari’s perspective of colonialism, her African identity, and womanhood changes when she pursues an overseas education. After returning to Kenya with a Master’s degree, she becomes a professor in Nairobi, pursues a doctorate, and gets married.  

As Wangari chronicles her divorce, she challenges Kenyan expectations of womanhood, and speaks out against a corrupt government, hellbent on humbling and humiliating Wangari into silence.  

Wangari digs into her project, the Green Belt Movement, which began by engaging women in planting native trees to counter deforestation. The project, like the many native trees they plant, grows into a powerful platform for environmentalism, addressing poverty, and democracy while advancing women’s rights and political power. Together with the movement and other voices crying for justice in Kenya, Wangari remembers clashes with authority, the police, and politicians and the slow, hard path to progress.  

Discussion Questions 

Check out the discussion questions below and connect with readers on Instagram to share your reactions, thoughts and questions by using the hashtag #WFWIBookClub, and tagging us with @womenforwomen. We want to hear what you think—share with us your take on the book! 

  1. How did British settlers and governance in Kenya systematically devalue Kenyan culture and establish inequalities based on race? What are some of the lasting impacts of colonialism in Kenya that Wangari describes? 

  1. How does Wangari describe the role stories played in Kenya?  

  1. How did education change the trajectory of her life as a woman? 

  1. How did being a woman affect Wangari’s divorce? How did it affect perceptions of her?  

  1. How were Wangari’s divorce and her womanhood used by politicians to try to silence her? 

  1. Why does Wangari say it is important to have local people – local women – invested in efforts?  

  1. As the Green Belt Movement started taking off, what were the problems rural women faced? What was the effect of listening to those problems?  

  1. How did the Green Belt Movement connect environmental activity to people reclaiming identity and power?  

  1. How does Wangari’s memoir show the relationship between women’s rights with human rights, environmentalism, and democracy? 

  1. Why were women’s rights important to attaining justice in Kenya?