“Unbowed: A Memoir” by Wangari Maathai, pt. 1
There is a phrase that’s apparently become popular on Twitter conversations where someone wishes to point out unconscious privilege: they state that the issue under discussion is an FWP, or “First World Problem.” Reading Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed: A Memoir, I found myself often reflecting with bleak amusement that all the issues I’ve ever faced — compared to Maathai’s turbulent life — are definitely, unequivocally First World problems! Reading about some of the dangerous situations she was pushed into, in her efforts to promote her vision of ecofeminism, democracy, and justice, made my toes curl with horror. Her courage and personal integrity seem to shine through her words as I read, and her deeply embodied prose made for very clear, straightforward, and engaging reading. I really liked some of her comments; I’m repeating a few here:
Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from the land, but instill in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost. The future of the planet concerns all of us, and all of us should do what we can to protect it. . . . [because] you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree (138).
I particularly love this comment, since I firmly believe education is not free rein to be an intellectual snob self-isolating in a mental ivory tower. More than anyone else, I believe, the educated have the responsibility and the joyful duty to share what they’ve learned: to teach and to ask questions and to see how they can help their communities. I found Maathai’s symbolic connections between good government and trees to be quite inspiring, in fact:
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. It is a reminder to all of us who have had success that we cannot forget where we came from. It signifies that no matter how powerful we become in government or how many awards we receive, our power and strength and our ability to reach our goals depend on the people, those whose work remains unseen, who are the soil out of which we grow, the shoulders on which we stand (293, italics mine).
In tribal societies we used to turn to wise women/shamans for help, and to hold the community together, and to heal whatever needs we had. The shamans are mostly gone now. In modern society the highly educated are, I believe, society’s new shamans. We need to get to work!
While Maathai’s stories of her childhood spent in the beautiful countryside were rather nice, I found the main middle section of the book hard to get through. The stories of her travails were so painful, despite her clearly trying to be an up-beat and cheerful author. There were parts where I found myself checking the dates she was writing of, then reminding myself firmly that it had to end well, since she’d won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize — I just had to hang on to that point! I firmly agree with the Nobel Committee, after all, that there is a powerful and important global connection to be made “between peace, sustainable management of resources, and good governance” (294). That being said, I admit I found some of her stories astonishing, while others were painfully close to observations I’ve made in my own country. For example, how many men can you think of who see their wives:
through the mirror given to [them] by society rather than through [their] own eyes… Society’s perception was part of the problem. It placed constant pressure on men to behave in certain ways. Even if their wives had more education or more achievements, they were expected to demonstrate that they were in control of their households and were not henpecked by and under the control of their wives (139-140).
I would dearly love to believe this was not a problem in the US… but I’ve actually heard men refer with disgusted disdain to another man as henpecked. The really sad part was that I found one of these supposedly henpecked men (the only one I knew personally) to be one of the kindest, most loving, and most self-confident men I’ve ever met — while my perception of the derisive men, even before their rudeness, was of insecurity masquerading as “manliness.” As a very smart friend of mine once put it, society would be delighted to see her dedicate her entire life to nurturing some man as he earned money and took care of her. That being the case, why is society so dead set against her finding a man who actually wants to dedicate his life to letting her earn the money — while he is nurturing and caring for her? I very much agreed with Maathai’s description of that type of unpleasant and pointless social opprobrium:
I had never anticipated that I would be discriminated against on the basis of my gender as often as I was, or that I could be belittled even while making a substantial contribution to society. I did not want to accept that one human being would deliberately seek to limit another, and I found myself challenging the idea that a woman could not be as good as or better than a man (117).