“Everything good came out of the mountain — the rain, the clouds, the fog.” Remembering her childhood in Kenya, Wangari Muta Maathai is simultaneously nostalgic and militant. Her grandmother used to send her off to sleep with stories “about dragons, about animals, a world where animals would talk to you,” Maathai says. “It was almost a lesson, be careful with life, be careful with tricksters who will put you into trouble.”
She could not have known as a girl the trouble she might get into. But Maathai has since embraced all kinds of trouble, from civil disobedience to confrontations with police and her nation’s leaders. Her career — as community organizer, activist, and elected politician — began with a campaign to plant trees. As portrayed in Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, which premieres tonight as part of Independent Lens, this campaign began modestly, in response to Kenya’s deforestation, soil erosion, and drying rivers. Matthai set out to stop “the grabbing of public land” by the government and commercial enterprises, initiating the Green Belt Movement in 1977.
Lisa Merton and Alan Dater’s essentially hagiographic documentary follows the biologist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s efforts to educate and inspire “the people” to preserve their own traditional values. She recalls that her first suggestion that women in the central highlands plant trees was greeted with derision and disbelief. Her audience felt unskilled and disrespected. And so, she remembers, “I said, ‘Well, I don’t think you need a diploma to plant a tree,'” and with that Maathai’s course was grounded. Initially, she says, “We tried to give them seeds, and then we decided against it. If we give them seeds, they will depend on you. If you plant a tree and the tree survives, the movement will compensate you.” No matter that the first compensation is small (about four cents per tree). The long term benefits, as Maathai asserts, are vital.
She begins with history. “Culture is coded wisdom,” she explains, a means to live day to day. As early Kenyan tribal stories were not written down, they were too easily repressed by those missionaries who “have given us values that are based on the Bible. As good as they are, they are not coded wisdom of our people.” Maathai sees the tree as one means of recovering this culture. “The more I looked into the environment and the more I looked into the problems that people are complaining about, especially women,” she says, “The more I saw we were complaining about the symptoms. We needed to look into the causes.”
The film helpfully explicates these causes, specifically the history of deforestation as it evolved with and largely because of colonization. A brief series of maps, instructional texts, and black-and-white archival images indicts the British “settlers” who, beginning with their arrival in the 1880s, worked to undermine tribal organization. Environmental activist Kamoji Wachiira describes the fears that shaped the imperial project. Not being “dumb,” the British came up with a scheme to “dominate these people.” The colonizers, he says, must have noted, “We only have a few of us with guns. There are millions of them. The formula was: weaken their cultural infrastructures, infiltrate their minds.” In other words, convince them of their inferiority, their need of help from the white invaders.
Wachiira observes, “The British came with the utmost force of terrorism.” Razing villages, cutting down forests, and massacring populations, the colonizers convinced Kenyans to fear the “Mau Maus,” the British name for the armed rebels who rose up against them in 1952. Moving citizens into camps and confiscating properties and resources, the British established an especially insidious sort of control, persuading — through promises of personal profits — Kenya’s own leaders — first president Josef Kenyatta and the second, Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi (elected in 1978) — to continue previous environmental policies.
To resist these tricksters, Maathai has developed her own protocols. Public demonstrations include sit-ins and mass tree plantings, peaceful marches, and seminars for local populations. One lesson, called the Wrong Bus Syndrome, is premised on the metaphor that citizens have been riding the wrong bus, known it and have said nothing. “We need to stop the bus,” exhorts the seminar leader. “Let’s get out of the bus and stop the ignorance.” With education, “Now we are ready to confront the driver.” As Maathai puts it, “You cannot enslave a mind that knows itself, that values itself, that understands itself.”
Maathai has weathered various attacks (the film includes a clip of a speech by President Moi, chiding her while his audience laughs along: “According to African traditions, a woman must respect men,” he says, “I ask you women, can’t you discipline one of your own?”) and come out an elected member of Parliament: she won with 98% of the vote in 2002. As much as she is celebrated by her constituents and this film, Maathai maintains her faith in “the people.” They “must save the environment,” she says, “It is the people who must make the leaders change.” Or, as in her case, become the leaders.