Colonization has left a lingering legacy on all affected nations. In Unbowed, Wangari Maathai Muta describes the direct and indirect impact of colonization, via her life experiences in colonial and post-colonial Kenya. The Nobel Peace Prize recipient was ultimately able to use some of the tools left by the British, such as the British court and parliamentary system, in order to dismantle some of the most destructive remnants of the colonial enterprise. Maathai Muta’s life and legacy embodies the central irony of the post-colonial era: that the evils of colonization can be counterbalanced by colonialisms’ own political, economic, and social institutions. Maathai Muta’s story focuses on the environmental impact of colonization: an economic and political model based on the exploitation of both labor and land. It is this type of multifaceted exploitation that characterizes the worst of colonization. Yet it was because of colonization that Kenya and other African nations developed links to Europe, the Americas, and other parts of the world. The development of industrial infrastructures has perhaps had a net-neutral effect on Kenya. Similarly, the European-style political and economic institutions enable participation in the global marketplace. Participation in the global marketplace is critical for the creation of social and ecological justice, as Wangari Maathai Muta’s memoirs show.
One of the primary impacts of colonization on the colonized is the imposition of cultural norms and values, which is partly achieved via the education system. Acculturation, and the assertion of a dominant culture on the perceived subordinate, can take place equally as much in churches as in schools. In fact, Wangari Maathai Muta’s memoirs show how religion and education converged in many African nations. Wangar Maathai Muta had access to Western-style education because the colonial infrastructure was in place and because of the missionary activities that were essential for the colonial enterprise. Missionary schools helped to indoctrinate the local populace into believing its own inferiority vis-a-vis the British hegemon. This negative force was, however, neatly counterbalanced by the positive impact that education had on the lives of Kenyans like Wangari Maathai Muta. Had Maathai Muta not had access to the European-style school system, in which she learned English as well as the foundations of academic knowledge, she would not have qualified for the student assistance programs developed by President Kennedy. Maathai Muta would not have earned a scholarship to an Americna school, or have been able to achieve both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in science. It was Maathai Muta’s foundational education that led her to teach science and to later awaken to the possible political applications of her academic scientific knowledge. The Green Belt Movement might not have been possible at all had it not been for the legacy of colonial schools.
Ironically, Maathai Muta would be using colonial school and education systems against colonial models of economic development. The colonial models of economic development depended on a simplistic business model: cheap labor plus cheap natural resources equals maximum profits for the plunderers. However, British model was devastating Kenya’s natural resources, and drawing attention to the underlying labor politics that were making exploitation possible. Maathai Muta recalls how when she grew up, clean drinking water was “everywhere,” and hunger was “virtually unknown,” (3). Of course, the author grew up under British rule. It was not just colonization that created an unsustainable business and environmental ethic, but it was the mismanagement of the country in the post-colonial era that created the need for rapid and proactive political intervention.
Wangari Maathai Muta also notes the impact of colonization on Kenyan culture. As with the impact of colonization on the economics and educational systems of Kenya, colonization also had an ironic impact on Kenyan culture. On the one hand, Maathai Muta reflects sentimentally on the traditional religions of her parents and her tribe. In chapter one of Unbowed, the author describes customs of marriage, medicine men, and clan gods. Although she later converts to Christianity, Maathai Muta comes to realize the net negative impact of missionaries on Kenyan society. Missionaries brought schools, sure, but they also dismantled traditional Kenyan social institutions and structures that created stability. A lack of social cohesion and stability in villages like Maathai Muta’s bred opportunities for corruption: and it was paradoxically Kenyans who Maathai Muta ends up having to fight against for most of her political career. The local people “became insensitive to the destruction, accepting it as a sign of progress,” notes Maathai Muta in Unbowed (6). A Christian worldview made it so that a human being could have ethical dominion over nature; unfortunately, many Kenyans bought into the Christian worldview and sacrificed centuries of tradition as well as a pristine landscape.
Although colonization might have alerted Kenyans like Maathai Muta to fundamental issues of social justice that existed prior to European conquest and the “scramble for Africa,” the overall impact of colonization was to be devastating on the entire African continent. Maathai Muta was certainly influenced by Western gender norms, which helped her to become the influential woman that she was as well as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. At the same time, though, colonization created the problems that Maathai Muta tried to solve. Ironically, Maathai Muta used the best of colonial legacy (education and gender equity) to combat the worst of that legacy (environmental degradation).
Maathai, Wangari Muta. Unbowed. Alfred A. Knopf.