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Unbowed: A Memoir

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  3,659 ratings  ·  518 reviews
Hugely charismatic, humble, and possessed of preternatural luminosity of spirit, Wangari Maathai, the winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize and a single mother of three, recounts her extraordinary life as a political activist, feminist, and environmentalist in Kenya.

Born in a rural village in 1940, Wangari Maathai was already an iconoclast as a child, determined to get an
Hardcover, 314 pages
Published October 3rd 2006 by Knopf
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4.07  · 
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 ·  3,659 ratings  ·  518 reviews

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I started out writing a totally different review for this book while reading the text in 'Unbowed'. By the finish line I just sat gobsmacked, and robbed of words.

A few years ago I watched a program on conservation work done in Kenya and saw Prof. Wangari Maathai explain the power of trees to a BBC tv audience. That prompted me to find more information on her work. I was rendered speechless when I discovered the amazing person behind this effort.

I was therefor anxious and excited when I was given
Claire McAlpine
An astonishing recollection of the life and work of Wangari Maathai, a woman who applied herself to everything she did with vigour and heart, the opportunity to be educated was a major turning point and was the first of many open doorways she walked through and made the most of, not for own benefit, but always for the good of all.

Though she was a scientist and part of the University for years, the work that she started that would embrace entire communities and develop an awareness of sustainable
Mar 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This is not the most artfully or lyrically written book but it deserves 5 stars for the tale it tells..It's a story of one of the few true heroes of our generation. And to overcome the formidible obstacles that are put in the path of an African woman from a developing nation, by men, culture, tradition and the vestiges of colonialism to reach the hieghts of leadership and effectiveness that she has is simply astounding. It is a story that needs to be shared with all that want to know what one pe ...more
Nov 15, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Earth Firsters-- be grounded.
Recommended to Tinea by: Nobel Peace Prize, 2004
It was my professor of African American Women's History in college who taught me the lesson that one of the best ways to learn history is through studying the lived experiences of activists working in opposition to a system structured to oppress them-- a combination of Patricia Hill Collins's standpoint theory, which states (simplified) that the oppressed must be able to navigate both the dominant paradigm and the inner workings of the cultures oppressed people create outside the realm of powerf ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Wangari Maathai has an interesting story of growing from a Kikuyu child to a Nobel Peace Prize winner. I grew up surrounded by stories of the Swahili and Turkana peoples of Kenya because of friends we had living there, but I didn't know much about the Kikuyu or the forests. I learned a lot about the socio-political history of Kenya, how to work toward change (be "patient and committed," she would say), and how much one person can accomplish. I also feel like I saw education from a different pers ...more
Friederike Knabe
Sep 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: african-lit, memoirs
When Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, questions were raised regarding her choice by the Nobel Committee. Why should an environmentalist receive a prize that was identified with peace and human rights, voiced the critics. Reading Maathai's memoir sets the record straight, and justifying her selection for the award. In this fascinating and very personal account, she paints a vivid picture of her life, embedded in the realities of Kenya before and since independence. Her e ...more
Krista the Krazy Kataloguer
My introduction to Wangari Maathai was through the children's books by Claire Nivola and Jeanette Winter, which focused on her tree planting efforts. However, once I began reading Unbowed, I realized that she is about so much more than that. Her life has involved her in politics, human rights, and women's rights, as well as environmentalism. I can't believe all that she has accomplished! One idea, one activity, led to another. She showed that when many people together do one small thing, they cr ...more
Feb 26, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The first half, about her childhood and even her experience as a university student in the U.S., lacked depth. The book became more captivating as I read on, but only because the subject matter became more interesting (her experiences in Kenya after she returned from university, Kenya's recent political history). Unfortunately, her writing style throughout is pretty dry; she probably should have worked on the book with someone. She also appears self-congratulating at times, which is annoying but ...more
Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
3.5 stars

I loved the first 50 pages of this memoir, covering the author’s childhood. Later on, though, it becomes more of a catalog of the many campaigns she was involved in and all her accomplishments – this is more an autobiography than a memoir – and it becomes rather impersonal and at times even a little self-righteous. Dr. Wangari Maathai seems like an amazing but complicated person, and I think I might have gotten more out of a third-party biography of her.

Born to a polygamous Kikuyu famil
Jun 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Unbowed is a book I read for school but I ended up loving it.
Jan 08, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"As I swept the last bit of dust, I made a covenant with myself: I will accept. Whatever will be, will be. I have a life to lead. I recalled words a friend had told me, the philosophy of her faith. "Life is a journey and a struggle," she had said. "We cannot control it, but we can make the best of any situation." I was indeed in quite a situation. It was up to me to make the best of it."
George P.
Maathai's autobiography tells her life story well, however I felt as though it didn't give me that much understanding of what went on inside, of how she changed from a nice Catholic school girl to a militant defender of the environment, democracy and women's rights who became a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. From her writing it was evidently a gradual process in which one thing led to another. It would be interesting now to read a biography of her by an unbiased journalist/ writer.
Dec 28, 2012 rated it it was ok
I have no doubt that Wangari accomplished a lot in a country that was determined to keep her in her place, however her memoir left me not particularly liking her as a person. She feigned humbleness and seemed to exaggerate her influence. One example: Wangari tells a short story of how she was not able to buy her children some chips at the hotel pool her family was at because she didn't have the money. Wangari said, "I can relate with those mothers that are not able to feed their children because ...more
Manik Sukoco
Dec 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
When Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, questions were raised regarding her choice by the Nobel Committee. Why should an environmentalist receive a prize that was identified with peace and human rights, voiced the critics. Reading Maathai's memoir sets the record straight, and justifying her selection for the award. In this fascinating and very personal account, she paints a vivid picture of her life, embedded in the realities of Kenya before and since independence. Her e ...more
Barry Morris
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Wow. Just wow. Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel peace prize. But, that's not really what the book is about. The book is about Kenya and how it developed from a multi-tribal area to a colonial outpost of the British and then how it finally gained independence, but then later moved toward totalitarianism, and then democracy - most all of which happened in the author's lifetime. And, of course, because it is the memoir of Maathai, two themes run through the entire ...more
Jul 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir, my-reviews
The date July 7 or 7/7 is a significant one for Maathai's movement. It's called Saba Saba in KiSwahili. I'd like to note here that I was reading this book on Saba Saba.

Before reading this, my only exposure to the Kikuyu was Mike Resnick's Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia. Although I think that the Kirinyaga stories are powerful fiction, I am only now grasping that they are a dis-service to the Kikuyu in some important ways.

From a cultural standpoint, I appreciated learning that there are Kikuyu st
Ravikiran Gunale
Jul 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
During my school days, I read that Kenyan woman, Wangari Mathai, received Noble Peace prize for planting trees. I was puzzled, how would anyone get Noble Peace prize for planting trees, until I read her autobiography. The challenges she faced when working in authoritarian regime were extremely harsh. She had no idea when she could be arrested, killed. Its an uphill battle working for environmental restoration, poverty eradication and leading a mass movement, when dictator is against you. Her gre ...more
Mikey B.
Nov 24, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wangari Maathai is certainly a commendable and tenacious woman who overcame many obstacles in Kenya to become an activist in ecology. This subsequently led to political agitation and imprisonment in attempts to make her country become more of a liberal democracy.

She could easily, during her upbringing in the 1940’s and 1950’s have remained illiterate in rural Kenya. She describes well her school attendance and her higher education in the United States. I found her stories about the relationship
Such an extraordinary woman!
Professor Wangari Maathai describes how it was to grow up in rural Kenya in the 40s, in a lush region. She explains about the country history including the colonialism (not judging history though, stating the facts), and she talks about the relationship she had with her family and with the land. She was one of the lucky girl to go to school, and get an education, which changed her life - she got to go to the US, and had different experiences.
Fast forward a few years,
Jul 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
She advocated for the environment especially tree planting, preventing public land grabbing, deforestation and for that her works shall forever be remembered. Like any other woman venturing into politics she received her fair share of jail time, crashed with the government severally but she stood rooted to even winning the Nobel prize. Her memoir is a clear example of what happens in today's society. I will just sum it up with something in the middle of those pages that captivated me: "A tree ha ...more
Cheryl Olseth
May 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
What an inspirational woman with a wonderful story to share. Ms. Maathai has demonstrated we all can make a difference. Fortunately most of us do not have to worry about violent thugs or dictatorial regimes trying to halt good works in their tracks. We just need to get out and fight for what we believe.

Ms. Maathai most certainly deserved the Nobel Peace prize for years of dedicated service to the people of Kenya and to all those she inspirired to plant millions upon millions of trees throughout
Jan 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: african-reads
I enjoyed this book. It helped fill in gaps of my existing knowledge about Wangari, the Green Belt Movement, and the political situation in Kenya during this time. It was inspiring to see how Wangari pushed through so very many obstacles with a constant desire to lift up the people and protect the environment. She was a visionary woman.
Travis Sherman
Mar 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
My knowledge of African geography is so skimpy that I consciously wanted to read something that would get me out of the "Here be lions" league. This was the perfect book. Beautiful descriptions of her lifestyle as a young Kenyan child growing up on a farm, the education system, the culture, the problems the country faced, her tree planting movement. Just a great book.
Feb 23, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wangari Maathai is one of the most interesting, positive, and hard working women I've ever read about/known/heard of. And even though it's not a focus of the book, it's still very interesting to observe the long lasting effects of European colonialism in Africa.
Oct 15, 2017 rated it liked it
Recommended to Jacquelyne by: Beth Wessell Kenya story
A wonderful introduction to Kenya and its history. I finished it as I was landing in Nairobi.
Rivera Sun
Aug 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Inspiring true story. I love reading personal accounts of the mundane, exhilarating, challenging, dangerous days of daily effort that lead to major accomplishments, like the Kenyan Green Belt Movement. It gives me a lot of ideas for our efforts in our own communities, and some take-home messages for my own heart as I work for change, too.
Jun 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Its taken me many days to finish this book. It was so hard, so new to me, I knew nothing of Kenia or the people, and especially the life of women, and the fight for equality. Its not a "nice" book, the theme is very tough, some things happen that are horrible, and especially, the ambient of corruption and lies is very depressing. But Wangari is a wonderful character, a real woman, a fighting woman, she gets down many times, but she never, never loses hope. This is a real history about a real per ...more
Aug 17, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: development
I received this book as a gift about 10 years ago, but because it's an autobiography and I guess because of the cover picture I never had the corrige to start it. Thanks to the Great African Reads group I picked it up again, though my expectations were low.

And I must say, the first chapters were disappointing: Wangari Maathai creates a romantic picture of precolonial Africa as made up of peaceful, harmonic and isolated communities. In reality, precolonial Africa was not isolated, farmers cultiva
Doris Jean
Nov 02, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: politicians
Names can confuse, and Wangari Maathai is the same person as Mary Josephine. This is Mary Jo (Josephine) who got to go to a Catholic church school as a young child in rural Kenya where most did not get education. She was in the right place at the right time so she got an education and rose above her peers. Then she got lucky again and was chosen by sponsors to leave Africa for a free college education in Atkinson, Kansas.

Mary Jo lived in Kansas as a typical black American teen of the era, with
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Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental and political activist. She was educated in the United States at Mount St. Scholastica and the University of Pittsburgh, as well as the University of Nairobi in Kenya. In the 1970s, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women's rights. In 19 ...more
“There are opportunities even in the most difficult moments.” 23 likes
“In trying to explain this linkage, I was inspired by a traditional African tool that has three legs and a basin to sit on. To me the three legs represent three critical pillars of just and stable societies. The first leg stands for democratic space, where rights are respected, whether they are human rights, women's rights, children's rights, or environmental rights. The second represents sustainable and equitable management and resources. And the third stands for cultures of peace that are deliberately cultivated within communities and nations. The basin, or seat, represents society and its prospects for development. Unless all three legs are in place, supporting the seat, no society can thrive. Neither can its citizens develop their skills and creativity. When one leg is missing, the seat is unstable; when two legs are missing, it is impossible to keep any state alive; and when no legs are available, the state is as good as a failed state. No development can take place in such a state either. Instead, conflict ensues.” 21 likes
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