African Nobel Prize Winner’s Book

Destination: Kenya, Africa

Book: Unbowed by Wangari Maathai

A GUEST POST by Gayle Pescud

I was in a modern bookstore for the first time in months in January,  getting well and truly high on the smell of new books (we live in Bolgatanga, the Upper East Region of Ghana, 18 hours from Accra, the capital), but I could only buy one (I used my spending money on coffee and chocolate).

After browsing for an hour, I came across Unbowed in the African writing section and soon sensed I was on to a good thing: two of my favourite authors wrote front and back cover endorsements: Bill Clinton (yup, that Bill Clinton) and Alexandra Fuller (who wrote Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, another brilliant African memoir, by the way).

And The Guardian wrote, “Maathai’s book is frank and moving…Like a Nelson Mandela or a Mahatma Gandhi, Maathai stands way above most mortals.”


An 18 hour bus ride later I finished reading Unbowed (and a whole packet of caramels). Now, if you asked me to name the one book that everyone should read, I would say, “You can read supernatural fantasies for the rest of your life, but read Unbowed first.”

Unbowed is a memoir of Wangari Maathai’s life growing up in Kenya, Africa. Her book shows that one need not pick up a traditional “travel memoir” to be inspired towards distant horizons and discover writing that evokes a sense of place and a yearning to jump straight inside the pages of the book.

From Page 1:

At the time of my birth, the land around Ihithe was still lush, green, and fertile. The seasons were so regular that you could almost predict that the long, monsoon rains would start falling in mid-March. In July you knew it would be so foggy you would not be able to see ten feet in front of you, and so cold in the morning that the grass would be silvery-white with frost. In Kikuyu, July is known as mworia nyoni, the month when birds rot, because birds would freeze to death and fall from the trees.”

Throughout reading Unbowed you feel as if you are in the company of a kind and sensible friend who happens to be an African woman and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, such is the humility, candor and warmth in Maathai’s writing.

Indeed, Maathai is famous for  her Greenbelt Movement which, since 1975, has planted more than 4 million trees across Kenya. But her environmental work is only half the story.

Unbowed tells about her life from birth through to the period of publication, but it’s the development of Maathai’s political consciousness and her transformation into an environmental and human rights activist in Kenya that most captivated me.

I discovered that Maathai’s commitment and dedication to protecting the environment has transformed the human landscape in Kenya, too. Her will and her network publicized, prevented or remedied human rights abuses, especially against women, corrupt practices, destructive environmental practices, and conflict across Kenya—in the face of death threats, abuse, harassment, imprisonment and much more. This was new to me and truly opened my eyes to the reality that Kenyans have had to endure for all these years.

But she is famous for her beloved trees and rivers and, to steal a Fuller phrase, the planet is “going to the dogs.”

When I visited Wli in 2005, a mountainous area on the border with Togo in Ghana’s east, the surrounding hills retained some forest cover, yet just one metre outside the “protected area” loggers were sawing down trees. When I revisited in 2007, I woke to the sound of chainsaws in the forest. All day, chainsaws. Wheezing chainsaws for the next five days. The mountains, while majestic in form, looked like something out of Mordor (Lord of the Rings): ugly and bare.

Looking around me here, where I live in the flat, semi-arid Upper East region, where conditions are harsh, hot, unforgiving and designed to make life as uncomfortable as possible, and women toil in the home and fields for virtually nothing—certainly not property rights when their husbands die and not for money while they’re living—I wonder where are Ghana’s Maathais?

Women, I’ve observed, especially in rural Ghana, are nothing if not strong and courageous. It only takes one strong woman to speak out and take action.

While Unbowed hasn’t exactly sparked my desire to visit Kenya, it gave me an urge to do something here in Ghana about the issues Maathai has dedicated her life towards. We could all “take a leaf” (forgive me) from Maathai’s life, her work, her determination and courage. Adding tree planting to an environmental project we’re supporting in Ghana was one significant action we took as a result of reading Unbowed. We are indebted to Maathai for the inspiration. You can read more about the project at the G-lish website. (Ed. Note: and find out what G-lish means!)

Read supernatural vampire wizard goblin fantasies for the rest of your life, but read Unbowed first because our planet is real and, as Maathai wrote on page 295, “We have nowhere else to go.”


Gayle Pescud is an Australian living the ex-pat life in a cross-cultural relationship in Ghana. She and her partner Godwin have written the Insider’s Guide to Ghana and contributed to the Insider’s Guide to Volunteering in Ghana. She blogs at G Is for Ghana, and works on the website mentioned above. Thanks so much, Gayle for providing us with a terrific piece of literature about Africa for travelers.

How bout you? Have you been to Ghana or Kenya? Have you worked in an International volunteer effort? Let’s share.

If my trip is on schedule, I’m spending my last day in Brittany–on the south coast. Tomorrow we take a train to Bruges (Brugge, Brugges–take your pick).

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

10 thoughts on “African Nobel Prize Winner’s Book

  1. Hi Vera, Thank you so much for publishing this! I was actually able to watch the movie as we have a decent connection today. 🙂 I’m so pleased it’s inspired some potential new readers and discoverers of this amazing woman.

  2. Thanks for alerting me to this memoir. I heard what Professor Maathai said so eloquently about plastic bags in the environment, in Kenya, where mosquitoes breed, and the effort to ban them being defeated by business interests that prefer the use of DDT. Yes, DDT. Still in use in 17 countries. Shocking!

  3. Wangari Maathai is one of my personal heroes. In the U.S. when we act on our beliefs, the worst that happens to most of us is catcalls, or maybe some hassling by the “authorities”. Ms. Maathai’s activism has repeatedly put her life on the line. Hats off to her!

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