Independent Lens "Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai"

Tue, 04/14/2009 - 10:00pm
Pictured: Wangari Maathai
Photo Credit: Lisa Merton/ITVS
How does the simple act of planting trees lead to winning the Nobel Peace Prize? Ask Wangari Maathai of Kenya. In 1977, she suggested rural women plant trees to address problems stemming from a degraded environment. Under her leadership, their tree-planting grew into a nationwide movement to safeguard the environment, defend human rights, and promote democracy. It also brought Maathai the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Independent Lens presents Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, airing Tuesday, April 14 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1).
Born and raised in the rural highlands of Kenya, Wangari Maathai remembers a childhood spent in a verdant
Eden, surrounded by green trees and clear streams from which to gather firewood, food and water. Educated in Catholic schools, she developed a strong sense of justice and a desire to help others. In 1960, Maathai, one of the brightest and best of her country, was selected for a Kennedy Scholarship, enabling her to travel to the United States with a group of other students (including Barack Obama Sr.) for study abroad. She studied biology, earning a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh. This opportunity changed Maathai’s life, opening her eyes to new worlds, yet renewing her dedication to return to her homeland.
Once back in Kenya, Maathai became the first woman in East Africa to earn a Ph.D. (in veterinary medicine).
She began teaching at the University of Nairobi, where she became the first woman to chair a department. In addition to teaching, Maathai returned to her roots by reconnecting with the rural women with whom she had grown up. She discovered that their lives had become intolerable: firewood and clean water were scarce, the soil was eroding, and children were malnourished. Maathai remembered the greener paradise of her childhood and thought, “Why not plant trees?” Trees could solve all of those problems. This realization led Maathai to found the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization encouraging rural women and families to plant trees in community groups. A seemingly innocuous idea, Maathai soon discovered that the movement to restore the landscape was bearing more fruit than that which grew on trees. In the mid-1980s, Kenya was in the grip of the repressive dictator Moi, who forbade group gatherings and the right of association. But in tending their Green Belt nurseries, women had a legitimate reason to gather outside their homes and discuss their problems. Soon the women found themselves working not only against deforestation, but also against poverty, ignorance, embedded economic interests and political oppression. A spirit of hope and confidence grew in these ordinary citizens, and they became a national political force. But the government was determined to quell the growing Green Belt Movement.

Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai documents the dramatic confrontations of the 1980s and 1990s and captures Maathai’s infectious determination and unwavering courage. Kenya’s fight for democracy finally prevailed. In 2002, a new coalition government was democratically elected, and Maathai became a member of the new Parliament and Assistant Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources. Today there are more than 6,000 Green Belt nurseries throughout Kenya, generating income for 150,000 people.
Thirty-five million trees have dramatically altered the physical and social landscape in various regions of the
country. The Green Belt Movement has also started programs teaching women about indigenous food crops,
income-generating activities, HIV/AIDS and self-empowerment.
Through intimate conversations with Maathai, whose warm, powerful and luminous presence imbues much ofthe film, Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai captures a worldview in which nothing is perceived as impossible.

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