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2013 Group Reads > September 2013 Read: Wangari Maathai’s "Unbowed: My Autobiography"

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message 1: by Lynnm (new)

Lynnm | 923 comments Very excited to read this book - I've only just started it, but already, I like this woman - she plants trees!

And I love memoirs - I find them to always be so inspiration. Someone else has done it - so can I.


message 2: by Julia (last edited Sep 01, 2013 11:19AM) (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) I'm so impressed with this woman; Wangari Maathai began the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and won the Nobel Peace prize in 2004: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wang...

I'm also planning to watch the video about her, "Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai". It is available for free on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNIQL...

I love her "voice" in the book--really human and down-to-earth. At 8 years old, she walked 3 miles to school and did not yet know how to read and write!

In looking up information online, I learned how she inspired then-9 year old Felix Finkbeiner to start "Plant for the Planet".



http://plant-for-the-planet.org/en/ab...

"The Plant-for-the-Planet Children's Initiative was founded in January 2007. It has its origin in a school presentation about the climate crisis of the - back then - 9-year-old Felix Finkbeiner. Inspired by Wangari Maathai, who planted 30 million trees in africa, Felix developed at the end of his presentation the vision that children could plant one million trees in each country of the world to create a CO2 balance therewith. During the following years Plant-for-the-Planet developed to a worldwide move: At present approx. 100,000 children all over the world pursue this goal. They understand themselves as an initiative of world citizens which campaign for climate justice in the sense of total reduction of the emission of greenhouse gases and an homogeneous distribution of those emissions among all humans."


message 3: by Lynnm (new)

Lynnm | 923 comments Thanks for the links, Julia!

I'm going to read the book first, then the video.


message 4: by Florence (new)

Florence Millo | 41 comments I just finished reading it and all I can say is that she is certainly a braver soul than I.


message 5: by Lynnm (new)

Lynnm | 923 comments Florence wrote: "I just finished reading it and all I can say is that she is certainly a braver soul than I."

Already, Florence! Good for you. I still haven't started it. But I will this weekend.


message 6: by Lynnm (last edited Sep 07, 2013 01:32PM) (new)

Lynnm | 923 comments I started reading today and finished Chapter 1.

A few thoughts:

First, I know the history, but still shocking to read how Europe divided up Africa, and then again dividing the land, giving the best to European "settlers." The arrogance of imperialism. And we still see the negative affects of European interference around the globe. After reading those passages, Jamaica Kincaid's "A Small Place" came to mind. Wonderful, very short book, about the small island of Antigua. Kincaid just blasts the Brits. It also brought to mind Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

Second, the passage on the young Kenyan males forced to fight in World War I. I took a World War I lit class during my Master's studies, but never knew that is what happened. Such a horrific, brutal war. So many lives lost in a war that could have been over much more quickly if Empire hadn't been an issue.

Lastly, as always, we see that native cultures knew how to live with and treat the land well. And the people who came in, did not.


message 7: by Lynnm (last edited Sep 10, 2013 04:35PM) (new)

Lynnm | 923 comments Thoughts on Chapter 2:

I think I say this about every book, but I really like this book – and I really like Wangari! She has such a love for nature, and she has a wonderful way of describing the landscape. My favorite was when she talked about how as a child she would be asked to fetch water, but she would “get lost in this fascination world of nature” (52): “I can envision that stream now: the crystal-clear water washing over the pebbles and grains of soil underneath, silky and slow moving. I can see the life in that water and the shrubs, reeds, and ferns along the banks, swaying as the current of the water sidles around them” (52).

I also loved the passage on the passing on of oral stories as part of the culture (and found it interesting that it is the women who tell the stories). In school, however, she learns western stories but she can’t connect with them; they aren’t part of her culture and tradition.

Again, however, we see the affects of imperialism: the Brits ran the towns. I found her comment on the fact that they wear uniforms interesting: “British civil servants…always wore very impressive uniforms, and people in uniform tend to look orderly and disciplined, and to have a mystique about them. Their uniforms were a deliberate means of enforcing respect and fear of authority as a means of making the local people subservient and therefore easier to govern. This fear is entrenched even today” (41).

Also, her comments about the corruption in politics reminded me again of Jamaica Kincaid’s book, “A Small Place.” Kincaid argued that people from developed nations always accuse former colonized nations of corrupt governments. But she asks, who did those corrupt politicians learn from? Answer: the colonizers.

We also see globalization when Wangari talks about the colorful baskets that the people used to make and use. Now, they are just for the tourists while the Kenyans use plastic bags. Taking away the local cultures and replacing it with things from the West.

Connected to the environment: the Brits replacing native trees with trees transplanted from northern Europe which ends up “destroying the natural ecosystem that helped gather and retain rainwater” (45).


message 8: by Julia (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) Great insights, Lynn--thanks for all the good quotes. I'm taking notes and am around page 90. One major influence on Wangari is going to Catholic schools, where she accepts all she is taught. I'm to the part now where she is studying in the U.S. and beginning to question if all she has been told is the whole truth.

That process of questioning what we are taught as young people is a major step in becoming an individual. She is already showing the side of herself that is not only intelligent enough but is also open enough to allow her curiosity to grow.

The part about the baskets being replaced by plastic bags really hit me.


message 9: by Julia (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) I'm about to start chapter 6, and I'm in awe of all she's accomplished--three children and a Ph.D.!

I hadn't realized much of her work up to this point dealt with the use of the electron microscope. She truly defines the word "indefatigable"!


message 10: by Lynnm (last edited Sep 15, 2013 12:02PM) (new)

Lynnm | 923 comments Julia wrote: "Great insights, Lynn--thanks for all the good quotes. I'm taking notes and am around page 90. One major influence on Wangari is going to Catholic schools, where she accepts all she is taught. I'm t..."

I read Chapters 3 and 4 a couple of days ago.

Yes, Catholic schools have a major influence on her life. She does say that they taught her from a European perspective, but I would say that even here in America in K-12, students are given a rather "whitewashed" version of history. For example, in the U.S., students don't get a lot of the negatives of American history until they get to college, particularly of our most recent history.

The victors get to tell the stories. Sadly. Fortunately, at the end of the day, the other side usually gets to tell their story as well. But it takes time. And Wangari is doing just that in her book.

There are things that the Catholic church can be criticized for, but I would argue that the nuns should be given some credit for bringing education to many parts of the world. Wangari herself says that it changed her life.

When she gets to college in the U.S., she is able to focus on learning and take advantage of the opportunities presented to her. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on the reader's view), she is sheltered from the realities of the African American experience of that time period.

The story is so uplifting. You just feel happy for her. Happy that she is allowed all these opportunities. Happy that she is doing well. And thrilled that she is going into science. Even today, women have a tough time breaking into science fields.


message 11: by Julia (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) Now that I'm up to chapter 8, I'm saddened by the entire ugly mess of her divorce--the discrimination against an educated African woman in 1977 when Mwangi leaves her is very hard to read. And since the law only allowed divorce under certain conditions, he had sued her for adultery!

Later, when she states publically that the judge was incompetent, she is arrested for contempt of court; however, she only served 3 days of a 6 month sentence.

The ones I wonder about the most are her 3 children--she mentions them almost in passing as being 10, 8, and 6 at the time of her arrest. And since she is so desperate for money, she has to take a U.N job--so she lets Mwangi take the children! As a single mom of 3, I can't imagine giving my children over to the man who hurt us so much.

Chapter 7 ends with her trying to run for parliament, but being accused of not being a registered voter. She had given up her job at the university to try for office, and when she went back, they wouldn't take her.

She ends the chapter by saying she's 43, with no job or savings, and has just been evicted from her university housing!

However, during this same time, she has overcome tremendous odds to start the Green Belt movement, with local women serving as "foresters without diplomas." She worked right along with them, in the dirt, planting trees--the women got 4 cents for planting a seedling successfully.

And this is one of my favorite quotes so far. p. 138:

"Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from the land, but instill in them even more respect for it."

Her strength is a real inspiration--as is her stubborn sense of justice. When her former husband wanted her to give up his last name, she refused--but changed it from Mathai to "Maathai". She's a unique individual!


message 12: by Lynnm (last edited Sep 16, 2013 04:32PM) (new)

Lynnm | 923 comments Julia wrote: "Now that I'm up to chapter 8, I'm saddened by the entire ugly mess of her divorce--the discrimination against an educated African woman in 1977 when Mwangi leaves her is very hard to read. And sinc..."

I haven't read that far yet, but makes me sad. I just finished Chapter 5, and am in total amazement at all that she does: going for a PhD, teaching classes, having three children, married, starting the convenience store, helping her husband with his political campaigning, advocating for women's pay rights...

And her courage in going all over the world to study - first the U.S. (Kansas and Pittsburgh) and now to Germany.

Other thoughts on Chapter 5:

- She wrote about Kenya after political independence from Britain: "My generation and those that followed failed fully to appreciate and take advantage of the great opportunities of that that break-through presented. Kenyans have often engaged in retrogressive and destructive practices that continue to frustrate and retard the relaization of the promise of that time." It reminded me of Salman Rushdie - he said the same about India - that they didn't do enough after they got their independence from Britain.

- When her aunt urged her to get married so that she could pay "her debt to society."

- I liked her ideas about adapting to a new place: "When I get into an environment, I tend to take it as it is. I don't presuppose what it should be like, so I'm therefore not disappointed if it is not what I expected; instead, I'm excited by its newness and difference."

- Her reference to Dr. King. It reminded me how certain ideas - in this case peaceful civil disobedience - are passed on. Thoreau inspired both Gandhi and Dr. King (along with many others). Gandhi and Dr. King have inspired countless others.


message 13: by Julia (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) I'm not sure what to say at this point, since Lynn and I are the only ones really exchanging ideas. I'm not sure why a memoir by Nobel Peace Prize winner hasn't engendered more discussion, so I'm just going to say that it's been an honor to read about the life of this powerful human being.

Bill Clinton wrote this for the front of the book: "Wangari Maathai's memoir is direct, honest, and beautifully written--a gripping account of Africa's trials and triumphs, a universal story of courage, persistence, and success against great odds in a noble cause."

I'll end by simply sharing some of the quotes from this powerful book, and then I'll stop. I appreciate your posting this book as the September read, Lynn.

p. 164: "None of us can control every situation we find ourselves in. What we CAN control is how we react when things turn against us."

p, 172: She is betrayed by a young man who came to her for help, and she says: "This dishonesty was very disturbing, but highlighted for me the challenge facing the larger society. If corruption like this existed at the grassroots, I could only imagine what it was like in the higher echelons of government and society in general."

P. 197: As the government continues to harass her, she says: "What is important, indeed necessary, is to hold up your own mirror to see yourself as you really are."

And when she received the call from the Nobel Committee in 2004, these words will stay with me. Even if you didn't read the book, I hope this quote will be meaningful for everyone:

p. 293: "Trees have been an essential part of my life and have provided me with many lessons. Trees are living symbols of peace and hope. A tree has roots in the soil yet reaches to the sky. It tells us that in order to aspire we need to be grounded, and that no matter how high we go it is from our roots that we draw sustenance."


message 14: by Lynnm (new)

Lynnm | 923 comments Julia wrote: "I'm not sure what to say at this point, since Lynn and I are the only ones really exchanging ideas. I'm not sure why a memoir by Nobel Peace Prize winner hasn't engendered more discussion, so I'm j..."

I'll admit it - I'm disappointed that others haven't joined in, Julia. And very surprised. This has been one of my favorites reads to date on the Green Group. Such an inspiring and motivation story. Also, I'm learning a lot.

I'm up to Chapter 10. I'm going to post comments on Chapters 6-9 tomorrow. (Doing my coursera work today!)


message 15: by Julia (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) Thanks for all you do, Lynn--and for caring about this remarkable woman.


message 16: by Lynnm (new)

Lynnm | 923 comments My thoughts on Chapters 6-10:

Chapter 6 – interesting to read the origins of the Green Belt Movement. What stood out the most was the fact that she failed in her first attempts, but she learned from her mistakes, made the necessary changes, and the movement moved forward. What also stood out was the international support, particularly from some of the United Nations programs. Many people criticize the UN, but they don’t realize the many things that they do on a daily basis to help developing nations…they do excellent work there. I also liked her explanations on the connections of trees and water. No trees, no fresh water!

Chapter 7 – about her divorce. This book would be great on so many levels for a college class. One, you can talk about the environment. Two, political corruption. Three, it is motivational. But four, women’s issues. On one hand, it isn’t surprising how she is considered to be a troublemaker because she fights her divorce. But on the other hand, it still hits hard when you are reading the sections. She is threatening just because she has a PhD. She puts it clearly: “Traditionally, society …puts more value on boys than on girls: Boys are provided education before girls and boys are expected to be greater achievers than girls. Therefore, it was an unspoken problem that I and not my husband had a PhD and taught in the university” (132). Her husband says that she is “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn, and too hard to control.” Many of these characteristics would be considered assets for a man. And their personal life is put on display for everyone in society during the divorce proceedings. Her divorce definitely hurt her career, but love how she rose about it all.

Chapter 8 and10 – much of these chapters are about the problems Kenya is having at the time with basically having a one-party government (i.e., dictatorship). You can see how brave she is in the events she relates – she knows that there are risks (including being killed), and yet, she still doesn’t back down. Not only writing letters to everyone in government both in Kenya, but also to the international community. She uses the press to push her objectives, but also as protection as well. She really knows how to use government, press, and NGOs to make changes. I also liked her point about always blaming the government, but how the people also have to blame themselves: “Even though you blame the government…you should really blame yourself. You need to do something about your situation. Do whatever is within your power.” Thoreau would have appreciated that!


message 17: by Lynnm (new)

Lynnm | 923 comments Julia wrote: "I'm not sure what to say at this point, since Lynn and I are the only ones really exchanging ideas. I'm not sure why a memoir by Nobel Peace Prize winner hasn't engendered more discussion, so I'm j..."

Love the quotes - thanks for sharing them!


message 18: by Brian (new)

Brian Burt | 426 comments Mod
Very inspiring and courageous (or persistent) story! A few things struck (and haunted) me.

First, Ms. Maathai's account of her treatment in an Indiana cafe on her way to university in Kansas made me terribly sad. I'm a native Hoosier, and knowing that she was treated so badly in my birth state was very depressing. (I believe things have changed dramatically in Indiana since then... but small-minded people are everywhere, I guess, eh?)

Second, the book ended on a fairly up-beat, optimistic note after the 2002 elections in Kenya, when the promise of true democracy and a multi-party system seemed to have resurged. Given recent events, I felt another pang of sorrow: how would Ms. Maathai feel today, with the president and VP of Kenya facing war crimes charges at the Hague, and al-Shabab murdering innocents in a Kenyan mall? I think she was quite realistic about the challenges ahead, but I can't help but feel that she's looking down on current events in her home country with profound disappointment.

Let's hope the movement she helped start continues to make progress and eventually bears full fruit (or forests) throughout Africa. That would be a wonderful testament to her efforts!


message 19: by Julia (last edited Sep 24, 2013 12:08PM) (new)

Julia (juliastrimer) Thanks, Brian--it IS hard to watch Kenya's situation, but I think she would at least see that, in her lifetime, progress was made, and that she gave the effort all her energy.

In the end, that's all any of us can do. As you say, "small-minded people are everywhere", and that's not going to change. However, when I think of the little girl at the beginning of the book and then follow her journey as she became a Nobel Peace Prize winner, I at least have faith that an individual CAN make a difference, if willing to pay the price.

The picture I added above of Felix and "Plant for the Planet" shows that her vision has gone global--which is certainly a great testament to her life.


message 20: by Lynnm (last edited Sep 28, 2013 11:55AM) (new)

Lynnm | 923 comments Last thoughts on the last chapters:

I learned a lot about Kenya in this book, especially relevant now after the tragedy of the mall shooting.

The government was extremely corrupt, and I couldn’t believe how Wangari continually put herself in harm’s way time after time. An amazing woman. She could have been put in prison for months/years or assassinated. Yet nothing stopped her, even after being arrested, put in jail for brief period, attacked, police outside her door, etc. Fortunately, she had a strong network of people in the country, but more importantly, the international community who could advocate for her when the government went after her.

Though I couldn’t help but thinking that many governments are doing the same to the environment without the horrific treatment of their citizens: taking public lands and giving it to private interests, ignoring and engaging in activities that degrade the land, acting as if environmentalists are the “bad” guys.

I liked the happy ending: her Noble prize.

My two favorite quotes from the last three chapters:

“The truth is that I simply did not understand why anyone would want to violate the rights of others or to ruin the environment. Why would someone destroy the only forest left in the city and give it to friends and political supporters to build expensive houses and golf courses?”

“What I have learned over the years is that we must be patient, persistent, and committed. When we are planting trees sometimes people will say to me, “I don’t want to plant this tree, because it will not grow fast enough.” I have to keep reminding them that the trees they are cutting today were not planted by them, but by those who came before. So they must plant the trees that will benefit communities in the future. I remind them that like a seedling, with sun, good soil, and abundant rain, the roots of our future will buy themselves in the ground and a canopy of hope will reach the sky”.


message 21: by Lynnm (new)

Lynnm | 923 comments Brian wrote: "Given recent events, I felt another pang of sorrow: how would Ms. Maathai feel today, with the president and VP of Kenya facing war crimes charges at the Hague, and al-Shabab murdering innocents in a Kenyan mall? I think she was quite realistic about the challenges ahead, but I can't help but feel that she's looking down on current events in her home country with profound disappointment.
"


Nice point, and definitely agree.


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