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Change Grown from Documentary’s Seeds

April 16, 2010

Wangari Maathai - by Martin Rowe

“She was disobedient at a time when disobedience was not tolerated.” Taking Root film

Taking Root brings to life the confidence and joy of people working to improve their own lives while also ensuring the future and vitality of their land.” – Taking Root website synopsis

Last month, our nation’s capital hosted the 18th annual DC Environmental Film Festival, which was packed with films meant to highlight and give a fresh look at environmental issues across the world.  One such piece was the documentary Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai hosted by the National Museum of African Art.  The film captures the intersection of three important topics – women, politics and the environment—and it does so by telling the story of how Professor Wangari Maathai forever changed the landscape of her native Kenya.

Born in a rural village, Professor Maathai completed undergraduate and masters studies in the U.S. before returning to Kenya to become the first woman in East Africa to earn a PhD and the first woman in Kenya to head a university department.  While teaching at the University of Nairobi, she developed a side interest in environmental degradation, a project that eventually grew into the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization she founded in 1977 to encourage rural women to plant trees.  This basic act—planting trees—was intended to bring attention to significant issues such as deforestation and water access as well as provide an income source for local women. The GBM continued to grow and thrive, expanding into areas of political activism and awareness campaigns.  In 1989, Professor Maathai led a standoff with the Kenyan government when it set its sights on developing the only remaining park in downtown Nairobi.   Additionally, after an outbreak of ethnic violence between tribes following highly contentious elections in 1991, the GBM added programs to rebuild the sense of community that was lost.  For her efforts and activism, Maathai received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, becoming the first African woman and the first environmentalist to do so.

Having read Professor Maathai’s autobiography Unbowed in anticipation of travels through Kenya last summer, I was familiar with her story and the tremendous role she’s played in bringing the environment to the forefront of political, social and economic life in Kenya, Africa and the globe.  So what was I to learn by watching this documentary?  The answer lay in the impact of the visual medium itself.  While the documentary focuses on Professor Maathai, it is interlaced with testimonials from women who were involved in the Green Belt Movement programs and the human rights activists who rallied beside her.  The women discuss the effects the tree planting projects have brought to communities in Kenya.  During these they can be seen sitting next to the products

Green Belt Movement - by Ariel Poster

of their labor – the seedlings, saplings, or in the forests that make up part of the Movement.  The film also features archive footage of demonstrations, including one in which women stripped bare in protest of their sons being held in captivity as political prisoners.  Even when translations are needed to understand what the fractious tribes were saying in training seminars following contentious elections, I could watch recognition fall across a person’s face as he or she began to understand some of the root causes of their clashes as well as realize their commonalities. These images showed what their words alone could not reflect.

From a young age I have loved biographies.  For elementary school book reports I seemed to always pick female heroines—be they fiction or nonfiction, queens or athletes—so reading Unbowed was a good fit for me.  Nonetheless, it is always remarkable to hear the stories and see images of history from the perspective of someone who lived it, especially when that person changed history.

For me, the importance of having women at the boardroom table or the political podium is just as much about showing other women and girls they can and should be there as it is about the women in those positions now. That seems to be an advantage of visual media—seeing what other women have done and making visible the fact that change is possible. In the Directors’ statement on the film’s website, co-director Lisa Merton recognizes the potential that Professor Maathai’s message has to resonate and make connections with myriad viewers, writing, “It is our hope that Taking Root presents her journey as a model for humanity to follow.”

During a Q&A after the Festival film screening, a Cameroonian woman stood up to tell Merton and her co-director Alan Dater how much she would like to screen the film in her home community, stating that such a story would have a big impact on those there.  Merton gave her a complimentary copy to take home.  It may be doubly important for those viewers to see the power of a community rallied together for social change as well as a native African woman being the spark for that change.  When she and others screen the film for an audience and pass it on, who can say how many people its message will reach, or where it will take root.

Elizabeth Darnall is currently a Legislative Fellow for a Representative in the U.S. Congress.   Her sociological studies have focused on politics, gender and regulation. Most especially she loves going on adventures-whether they take her climbing through the red clay of her native Georgia or hiking through the forests of East Africa.

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