Born to a polygamous Kikuyu family in Kenya during British rule, Maathai grew up growing her own food and listening to stories around the fire at night. She was fortunately enrolled in a local school, and later went away to boarding school and then to college in Kansas. On returning home with her Master’s in biology, she proceeded to get a university job, marry, have three children, and become the first woman in East Africa to earn a Ph.D. She was heavily involved in women’s organizations as a young professional, which led to her founding the Green Belt Movement, meant to combat both deforestation and poverty by planting trees. She saw the two issues as intimately connected: Kenya’s loss of trees meant a loss of clean water and firewood, which meant health issues and the impoverishment of farmers who struggled to feed their families, as well as more landslides, poorer soil, and a host of other ills. Ultimately she devoted herself to the Green Belt Movement full-time – even having staff work out of her home when one of many run-ins with the government meant a loss of office space. She led campaigns to preserve parks and forests in Kenya, but also to free political prisoners, allow meaningful opposition in government, and more. At the time she wrote this book, she had become a member of parliament and government minister herself, as well as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. But she didn’t get there without facing a lot of opposition throughout her life, including arrests, harassment and beatings by the police, and a nasty public divorce in which she was criticized for not being sufficiently submissive.
All of which is to say that Maathai was clearly an extraordinary person. And I loved the way she wrote about her childhood; take this passage for instance, set during her adolescence:
Three months later, when I returned home for the next holiday, it was time to harvest the red kidney beans I had planted earlier. I borrowed a donkey from a neighbor and went to our farm in the Gura valley. The harvesting and thrashing took most of the day and by late afternoon I had harvested about one and a half sacks of beans. “Well,” I thought to myself, “I’m strong and the donkey looks sturdy enough,” so one sack went onto the donkey’s back and the remaining half sack I took for my own. Off we went, two beasts of burden crawling up and down the hills on narrow paths, bent over trying to carry these heavy loads. By the time we reached the Tucha River, it was getting dark and I was very tired. I may not have guided the donkey properly and before I knew it she slipped and rolled down the slope.
I didn’t have a clue what to do. Gathering my senses, I found a place to leave my load of beans and rushed to assist the donkey, who luckily had not been hurt in the fall. I helped her up, loaded the bag of beans onto her back again, and encouraged her back onto the path. I heaved my own sack onto my back and off we trudged again. As we neared our homestead at Ihithe village, we both had had enough and collapsed in a heap. My mother ran out of the house and could not believe what she saw: a donkey and her daughter lying exhausted next to each other. “How did you make it?” she cried. “These are enormous sacks of beans! I never expected you to carry so many beans. You shouldn’t do that.” The donkey and I were too tired to reply.
I love that: her humor, and the passion and pride she finds in subsistence farming, which most readers are likely to dismiss as a miserable, empty existence. She portrays a full emotional life in what we would consider abject poverty. And with grace and humor to boot.
That said, as the book goes on, it becomes much more about her public life. Her many campaigns certainly deserve the attention they receive, and readers will learn a fair bit about modern Kenyan history from it. Maathai clearly had a lot of courage, as well as dedication and perseverance; she refused to let setbacks and failures stop her, whether this meant continuing to agitate after a protest was violently dispersed, pushing on after losing a job, or running for office three times before finally winning. I think activists looking for inspiration will find plenty here.
However, unsurprisingly from a politician, her candor about her adult life is limited. After her divorce as a young mother, the book is very focused on her public life. And whether bullheadedness was simply required to succeed in the ways that she did, or whether she had political reasons to not doubt herself in print, there’s not a lot of self-reflection. She never questions, for instance, whether becoming the head of a woman’s organization despite government opposition – ultimately causing the organization to splinter in two and her half to lose much of its funding – was the right move, or whether perhaps succumbing to pressure to withdraw her candidacy and working through a consensus candidate might have done more good. She glosses over the bit where she drops her kids off at their father’s for six months with no advance warning (it’s unclear whether the kids know how long they’ll be staying, but her ex definitely doesn’t). And I had my doubts about the bit where all the Green Belt Movement staff go on strike over their pay, supposedly all because of the agitation of her treacherous assistant and despite the fact that they’d all understood and accepted the organization’s precarious financial situation. They are grown adults who presumably would need a reason to strike beyond the fact that somebody suggested it.
I don’t actually mean this as a criticism of Maathai: everybody has their flaws, which tend to make people more interesting and certainly more human. However, by the end I felt that an objective biography would present a more complete view of her as both a person and an activist, and without the limitations inherent in Maathai’s public position when she wrote this book. Nevertheless, she seems like an incredible person and I do think this book is worth reading.