Re-posting this March 14, 2011 story, in honor of Wangari Maathai’s Passing on September 25, 2011. Wangari Maathai lives on as a shining example for us all – a testament to the power of one person’s persistence.
A documentary about the work of Wangari Maathai
(Sadly, unable to connect to the web @ the movie, so will post from home.)
Taking Root is about a reforestation project in Central Highlands of Kenya that had far-reaching effects.
As a child, Wangari Maathai’s mother told her not to collect firewood from a particular tree because “it was a god.” We later learn this was an element of the local cultural wisdom about the value of the trees in their environment.
Maathai tells us “water flowed from the belly of the earth” back when she was a young child, and tells of “beads” in the water (turned out to be frog eggs), she learned that they could not be lifted from the river and made into a necklace, but didn’t stop her from trying.
Later, in the 1960s, the God of the tree was replaced by a church, the tree was cut down, and the stream had disappeared. Everything in the water was gone – including the water.
Making the connection between the tree and the stream took a college education. This kind of forest retains its water in the leaves – the water percolates along the deep roots to feed underground water reservoirs, which in turn feed the surface waters, by emerging where other roots create weak spots.
“We are called by the earth to heal her wounds and in the process, heal our own.”
People don’t know how much they depend on the survival of the ecosystem. “I know that when people want to cultivate the land, that they are digging their own graves.”
One older woman interviewed: As a girl there were very beautiful native trees everywhere. Water was plentiful. We cut down more tress for farming, the land and rivers dried.
Mid 70s, touring, researching, saw deforestation and soil loss. No firewood, no water. Too much land was given over to cash crops, and people didn’t have firewood to cook traditional food crops. As a result, they ate highly-refined foods (sometimes 100% carbs), no proteins and vitamins, causing malnutrition.
Maathai saw this cycle of environmental destruction leading to sick children and asked “Why not plant trees?” It was the birth of the green belt movement.
They called in foresters to help. The foresters did not understand why anyone wanted to plant trees. They said “you need a diploma to plant a tree.” Maathai said “I don’t think so.”
When figuring out how to move forward with the project, she thought “If we give people seeds, they’ll become dependent on us” (for distribution of seeds), so no, “you must learn to propagate the trees where you are.” A sort of “bounty” was offered – if someone planted a tree and it survived, they would be compensated a small amount (4 cents/tree). Women began planting, trees began growing -it was a success, and as the environment was reclaimed, it mushroomed, spreading throughout the country.
[Tour of the first community tree nursery, which was started in an open field.] They ran into lots of resistance, because it was not the tradition for women to plant trees. “We did it anyway.” Trees provide rain, clean air, lumber – things that are helpful resources to the people in the community.
The things people were complaining about (lack of water, food, firewood) were the symptoms of a larger problem that needed to be addressed. This led to the questions: “What were the causes? Why did we deforest?”
Here the movie cuts to old footage and historical documents, including an 8th Sept., 1902 log of a soldier describing the “need” to slaughter everyone in a village.
English colonists took the best land, cleared it, tore down forests, kicked out the people. They had a process for taking over: Weaken the local control infrastructure, infiltrate the local people’s minds, make them feel inferior: “Abandon that, it’s dirty, it smells, come along with us.”
This had an additional effect: Eliminating the cultural wisdom left a vacuum, which was filled with “biblical values,” but was missing the wisdom of how the local ecological systems worked. “As good as they (biblical values) are, they are not the coded wisdom of our people.” In the local wisdom, the trees were conserved – not timber; elephants were not seen as ivory; tigers were not seen as pelts. It was in the culture to let them be. When you remove culture, you kill a part of the people.
[footage of newsreel re: the Mau Mau” – describing the “need” to hunt down the Mau Mau and eliminate them.] One woman’s house was burned, her animals burned, and she moved to concentration camp “village” because her brother-in-law had supposedly joined the fighters in the mountains. She was told she was supporting terrorists.
In the crackdown, 100k people were killed by the British, the forests erased.
In 1963, Kenyatta became the first Prime Minister of Kenyan heritage since the British had invaded in the 1800s. Unfortunately, he continued the deforestation practices he had learned under colonial rule. When he died in 78, he was replaced by arap Moi, who carried along the same colonial practice, but dramatically increased corruption. The whole purpose of power in Kenya became the “division of the loot.” Forest land was divvied up, stripped bare, turned into tea and coffee plantations.
During this time, a professor (Wachiri) and co-worker were arrested for trying to show students the forest and its destruction.
Maathai notes: Government “makes people feel authority.” First they ignored the Green Belt movement, but when it became clear that women were becoming organized, the government started harassing groups involved in Green Belt – demanding licenses, fees, etc. Outlawing planting. We taught women to stand up to village leaders. When told not to plant, ask “Why can’t we plant? What is wrong with trees. Don’t be afraid of trees, they don’t vote.”
She told women to “Move with the wisdom of the serpent and the calmness of the dove.” In other words be smart, and be peaceful. Outsmart those who will try to stop you, and avoid violence and anger.
Maathai explains why the government found the planting of trees so threatening: “It’s more than the planting of trees, it’s the planting of ideas. Giving a reason to protect their rights, their environmental rights, their women’s rights.”
A key point in the film:
You cannot protect the environment unless the people realize that these are their resources.
Colonization erases knowledge of the foods from the natural world. If we can recapture the fact that trees, birds, environment are important, we can survive.
At one point, President Moi wanted to destroy the only major park in Nairobi, replacing it with a skyscraper and a massive statue to himself. Maathai thought it would be best to fight it through the British government – essentially going to the financiers who would provide the funding for the project. In essence, the letter sent to the British government asked “Would you support something that would destroy Hyde Park in London? If not, why are you supporting such a thing in our country?” This infuriated Moi and parliament – they were not amused at having their dirty laundry aired internationally. They were so incensed, they stopped parliamentary debate to discuss Maathai. Called her a “wayward” woman (among other things). She said told them they would do better to address the part of her anatomy “that’s important right now – from the neck up.”
The fight led her to realize, “you must do the right thing because it is the only right thing to do.”
In the end, they won. And standing up to the dictator showed “no matter how small, no matter who you are, you can make a difference.”
Stopping the building was a turning point for the country.
[Film now goes back in time, and describes the old ways of farming, and the feeding process for infants back then] She describes feeding a child from the fruits of the land as if you are saying to that child, “Welcome to this land of plenty.”
Her aunt was a story teller – all life lessons were told in stories, and those stories imparted not only morals, but information about how to interact with the environment. They also taught you to beware of tricksters.
At on point, as she attained school age, her brother told her she should go to school. There, she was shown writing on a slate. She longed to be able to write and erase (it was “magical”). She attended catholic schools, which she believes taught her a great deal about respect and caring for others. “I wanted to do good.”
Time in America transformed her: it was not easy to return to Kenya. Society there had hardly changed – she was told not to entertain ambitions “as an African woman.” Luckily for her country, she didn’t buy it, and went on to become the first E. African to get PhD and later to chair a department.
After a pretty good run, she divorced, lost her university job, and wound up deep in debt, not allowed to enter parliament (she had girl cooties, after all). She had no money for her children. It was a deeply painful time, but having nothing left to lose gave her the freedom to just go ahead and do what was right.
She then organized the “Freedom Corner” at the park in Nairobi. The mothers of sons who had been disappeared rallied to call for the release of their political prisoner children. After 3 days of continuous protest, male torture victims started to join in. The government realized this might become something, and opened fire and began beating the protesters. Women countered by stripping naked. Culturally, if men beat women, it was like sons beating mothers. Nakedness was a means of cursing the men who attacked. This saved the women, but Maathai was badly injured. The mothers would not give up so easily – they returned in the morning. Then, for safety, sought shelter in a cathedral. They remained there – sleeping in the basement at night, teaching and lecturing from the grounds during the day. The protest lasted a year. And then, finally, the sons were released.
Needless to say, by this time, the government wanted to eliminate Maathai, so a group of her friends watched day and night to prevent secret arrest. They did not want the authorities to be able to damage her in ways from which she could not recover, so keeping the light shining on the authorities would reduce their ability to act against Maathai.
It was clear that being elected to high office in Kenya meant, essentially, getting key to the resources. This situation led to tribal fighting, because each tribe wanted to be in charge of the resources, so they fought one another to try to prevent the other tribe’s “guy” from winning.
Seeing this link – as long as resources were not managed properly – fighting would continue led to the decision to begin teaching about the root causes of the scarcities that caused the perceived need for tribalism. It was politically instigated conflict, not an ethnic conflict. Green Belt expanded its mission from tree planting to Civic and Environmental ed – enabling people to protect their own interests.
Maathai’s belief: “You cannot enslave a mind that knows itself, that values itself.”
After Moi was ousted in 2002, Maathai was elected as part of coalition govt. She has brought the military into the fold – planting trees to protect the land as part of protecting their country.
In 2004, Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Video can be seen here.
35 million trees have been planted to date.
“It’s about way more than trees. I keep thinking about what’s going on in our country right now. It seems like, when power is concentrated in few hands, it’s so easy to be corrupt.”
“Maathari showed so much respect for the people she was teaching.”
“I cannot to this day, cannot see why we didn’t rise up and demand a better election in 2000. Think where we would be today.”