Taking Root - The Vision of Wangari Maathai


What do we consider sacred? How do we value it? Can we look at a thing for what it is? Can  political will be reasoned with? These are some of the fundamental questions explored in ‘Taking Root: Vision of Wangaari Maathai’. The one hour twenty minute documentary depicts the evolution of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, from the days of struggle of its iconic founder and its transition into a source of strength for the people of the country through the seemingly simple act of planting trees.

"Culture is coded wisdom... wisdom that has been accumulated for thousands of years and generations. Some of that wisdom is coded in our ceremonies, it is coded in our values, it is coded in our songs, our dances, in our plays." - Wangari Maathai


Narrated by Wangari herself, it begins with her experiences and memories as a child in Inhite, Kenya, where she spent a lot of time frolicking in the streams, learning to respect the fig tree that grew beside it, and gazing in awe at mountains that surrounded the area. In the 60s, her
understanding of what had changed since her childhood came after she realized that the place of God was relegated to that of the Church, in a building, within walls. And this, she points out, took away the reverence one attached to trees, the protection of streams and nature from our
everyday lives.

Wangari’s stint in the Nairobi University entailed field work, and through her subsequent interactions with rural women, she saw that many of the native indigenous species had been replaced with mono-varieties, that the land was degraded, there was deforestation, it was impacting the livelihood, that growing only cash crops like cashew and tea were harmful to the once-fecund soils, and the women were having to walk further to fetch firewood.

Planting trees was her answer, and that had significant repercussions; for promoting democracy, upholding human rights and safeguarding the environment. The film uses archival footage and in-depth conversations with members of the Greenbelt Movement – lawyers, professors, activists and rural women – to depict the political discordance in Kenya in the 1980s and 90s, and the determination of the members of the movement to extend their support to what was taking place across the country. Rare photographs from the times of colonialism give an idea of the diversity
of tribes that once inhabited the region, and how they were driven out to inhabit the British settlers.

The context of the documentary is easy to identify with here in India, where we have a  significant rural and tribal population with their own rituals, beliefs and customs that are largely Nature-centric, and their fight for rights in diverse places – whether the struggle for Independence from colonialism in the early half of the 20th century or to a more contemporary struggle against the nuclear plant in Jaitapur in Maharashtra, displacement due to the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat or a mine in Niyamgiri in Orissa.

One of the many important messages that the documentary conveys is that sancitity emerges through kinship, and that relationship in turn, nurtures its people and their surroundings. The second is, compelling issues like human rights, democracy, environment, social justice, and poverty need to be viewed through a single lens, the symptoms and causes that unite them need to be addressed together. In Kenya, planting trees functioned as the ‘lens’ which ensured that communities could rally themselves around various causes while at the same time addressing issues of daily sustenance and land degradation. And the work Wangari did was built on encouraging the wisdom that had existed for so many years. "There was something in our people that had helped them conserve those forests. They were not looking at trees and seeing timber. They were not looking at elephants and seeing ivory. Or looking at the Cheetahs and seeing the beautiful skin for sale. There was no such economic value of these animals so they let them be. It was in their culture to let them be.”

Filmmakers Lisa Merton and Alan Dater believe‘Wangari’s story is organic, her rural roots connect her deeply to the Earth, and despite her education and years in academia, she had never lost that connection.’

Pooja Nayak is the Assistant Editor of Eternal Bhoomi Magazine.