Wangari Maathai’s “Unbowed”

The story in Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed is beautiful and inspiring, but the writer in me kept gagging at comments like “I knew the sky was the limit” and “I knew I could do anything I put my mind to.”  I know the book’s purpose is inspiration, that her audience is looking for her to show how she achieved what she did, that it’s important for her to establish that she’s nobody special, that what she’s achieved is the result of curiosity and perseverance, that anybody could do what she’s done.  That, I admire.  But the crafting of the memoir—which tends more toward autobiography than memoir for me—was like nails on a chalkboard.

My views of Maathai’s book—influenced by both the ideas of Mitchell Thomashow and Ursula Heise—took on the metaphor of a map. What’s most striking to me is that both the global and local perspectives are best viewed through this particular lens.  Thomashow argues the importance of people learning “how to think about the relationship between places, and in so doing, you come to understand how global patterns may be interpreted from the time and place where you happen to be. The most important perceptual skill is learning how to recognize the salient connections between seemingly disparate times and places” (8-9). Maps are a good way to illustrate this thought process, as each is a snapshot of a particular place at a particular time in history. In terms of applying this concept to Maathai, maps were the way Africa was destroyed, for lack of a better word.  Land carved up by pens with no care to what was on the ground, no attention given to natural boundaries that might have made more sense, or placenames that had identified locales for centuries.

Of course, the danger of forcibly compressing the global and the local into the dimensions of a map is that if you’re taking a place like Kenya on the global level only, you end up seeing the land only by its mappable characteristics:  arable land, elevation, mineral deposits, population density.  The space, as defined by lines and dots, only has value in what it can bring to those who hold the maps.  From this two-dimensional vantage point, the world becomes intellectually comprehensible, but not understood any better.  Oversimplification is a particular danger here, as the only-global devalues people, plants, and animals and the only-local can’t see how individual actions affect those in the next town over. Ignoring the local perspective in this way makes it easier for the powers to exploit the land and the people on it, because the land becomes a pencil mark, not firewood to cook dinner, and the people become either important as workers or unimportant (and thus easy to displace).

But then, there’s also value to prizing the global perspective, the vertical view provided by maps, the whole of a place contained in comprehensible, tangible way.  Maathai writes of flying over the Sahara Desert for the first time as she was going from Kenya to Kansas for college in 1960, of landing in Luxembourg, which sounded so romantic to her, a Europe she’s only read about in books during school.  Things changed for her when “geography…[came] alive,” (75) when she stood at the top of Mt. Gatumbiro in Kenya and saw a new view of the fields of crops that fed her (31), when she marveled that “Valleys were new to me” (32).  The image of her standing at the source of the Kanungu River, wondering at those people who had never stood at the source of a river, was particularly evocative.  I’ve done that.  I’ve stood in water up to my calves at Itasca State Park, the headwaters of the Mississippi.  I’ve also drank water from a spring that fed directly into the Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota.  Maathai writes of long walks along the Missouri River, “known to me from maps but now very real” (82).  I’ve been there too, standing on a sandbar, noticing the sensation of the solid sand under my feet dissolving. Such a moment is, as Thomashow describes an experience in Mexico with butterflies, a “visceral experience and imagery to tighten the connections” (10). Only with the global view of a map can anyone really comprehend the significance of what is below our feet at any given moment and how it connects to other parts of the system.

But preferring the local view isn’t without its issues—and this too-narrow view can also be considered within the metaphor of mapping.  Tunnel vision and the Ostrich Syndrome, for one.  Not knowing how what you’re doing affects other people is another, like something half-way around the world doesn’t affect you.  Tell that to the people in New England whose crops froze during the summer of 1816 because of the “year without summer,” due to the temperature changes caused by Mt. Tambora blowing its top in Indonesia in 1815. It is the difference between geographies real and imagined, education without experience.  Without the elevation that an educational perspective provides, you don’t know what you’re looking at.  If you’re educated, but don’t have the experience, you’re equally as hobbled.  Maathai would (likely) never have achieved what she did without moving away from Kenya and viewing it from that distance.  That distance provided her with both a wider view and a narrower view of Kenya and what was happening to it. It is here that Thomashow’s premise of what happens after a person achieves “biospheric perception” rings truest: he believes that after one learns to pay attention, the only choices are to become politically active or religiously/spiritually active. Of course, this works well for Maathai, who went the political route. I disagree that these are the only options after one learns to pay attention, but that’s a different issue.

There are, of course, benefits to favoring the narrow, local view on a map.  Ursula Heise brings up a class at Berkeley taught by Robert Hass, where the students could not identify the tree that shaded them, but had fairly sophisticated knowledge of global dangers, like ozone depletion, observing that “the basis for genuine ecological understanding, Hass seems to claim, lies in the local” (28).  I do believe that it makes no sense to try to solve ozone depletion if you don’t know what your local environment is doing to cause it.  Maathai might not have completely explored the implications of such tree planting—as she was only concerned with the local problems caused by the lack of firewood, the disappearance of clean water, the erosion of the soil needed to grow crops—but by the end of the book, she’s aware of the role that trees in this particular part of the world plays as one of the world’s lungs. In this way, it seems very artificial to separate the global and local perspectives, as paying particular attention to the local in this instance gives insight to the overall sense of the global.

All of these thoughts seemed to come together in one place, one pinpoint of a moment: as I was finishing Unbowed at Scooter’s coffee shop, down in the Haymarket, I noticed the irony of the walls being decorated with paintings of what I assumed were coffee plantations in Africa.  Over my head, on what I assumed were excerpts from something not identified by more than a short title, I read: “I heard him before I saw him.  On a wide stone outcropping high in the Aberdare Mountains, I was crouched over an open fire, examining a handful of freshly-hulled Kenyan Arabicas.  I’d been hearing good things about this particular harvest, so I’d come to the plantation to judge the beans for myself.  The reports I’d been hearing were right.”  Maathai mentions the Aberdare Mountains in her book as one of the casualties of British mapping, as the British wrote right over the traditional name for the mountain and ascribed it one of their own.  But this brought the large-scale down to the local, me, sitting in a coffee shop in Lincoln, Nebraska, likely drinking tea from a plantation that Maathai was so critical of.  It brought up an interesting dilemma.  I had my own travel mug with me, so I wasn’t creating trash and I was drinking loose-leaf tea, which has less environmental impact than bags and can be used for compost, but that still didn’t eliminate my footprint.  I still struggle with that footprint, where it is in relation to how I like my life and what’s damaging to the planet my life depends on.  I don’t have an answer, but I’m carpooling to school tomorrow.

If there’s a next step from here, I think it can be found in a couple of places:  (1) Simple Environmental Awareness.  What you do after you’ve learned to pay attention is up to you (to disagree with Thomashow).  You may get political, you may get spiritual, you may just try to be a good example to others by the way you live your life; (2) Reading Travel Writing (as well as writing of the place where you currently live), contemporary and classic, as these works provide interesting snapshots of timescapes as well as landscapes; (3) Your Own Movement (Or Not), to see things and places for yourself and test your own ideas of what it means to be “biospherically perceptive” (Thomashow 14) against those who have unfolded their maps in this place before you.

Works Cited

Heise, Ursula. Sense of Planet and Sense of Place. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Maathai, Wangari. Unbowed: A Memoir. New York: Anchor Books, 2007. Print.

Thomashow, Mitchell. “The Perceptual Challenge of Global Environmental Change.” Bringing the Biosphere Home: Learning to Perceive Global Environmental Change. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. 2002. 1-16. Print.


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