'Taking Root' Filmmaker Remembers Wangari Maathai

Thursday, January 5, 2012

"Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai" is broadcast tonight on PBS. Here, Lisa Merton looks back on making the film in Kenya and struggling to capture the sense of divinity and hope projected by the recently deceased Nobel laureate.

(WOMENSENEWS)--My engagement with the late Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai began as a 15-minute film and ended with the 54-minute tribute that airs tonight on PBS.

I hope viewers of our film will pick up on the luminous sense of divinity that hovered around Maathai. If so, we will have done our job.

Maathai did what had to be done and never lost hope, however hard things were for her. Her perseverance made it difficult for me to accept, just a bit more than three months ago, that she could really die. I thought I would have her as a friend and mentor for 20 more years, at least.

"Well I must say that when you travel along a path such as the one I have traveled, you must have hope," she said to me in an interview in 2005. "You can't afford to give up. And so no matter how dark the cloud is, there is always a thin silver lining. I always tell myself, just look for that thin silver lining and hold onto it long enough . . . and eventually that silver lining can sometimes become a very big beam of light."

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My first meeting with Maathai was in May 2002 when Alan Dater, my husband and filmmaking partner, and I were asked to go to Yale University to interview the Kenyan environmentalist. A board member of the Hartley Film Foundation had heard Maathai give a talk and asked us to produce a 15-minute film based on our interview and some archival footage.

At that time Maathai was the McCluskey visiting fellow in conservation at Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. I remember clearly the moment she walked into the room. Her smile was wide and crinkled up the corners of her eyes with laughter. Her handshake was strong and firm. As her story unfolded, we were in awe.

'Child of the Soil'

She had grown up in the Central Highlands of Kenya living on the land; a "child of the soil," as she put it. Everything she said was imbued with that deep rootedness in the natural world and her understanding of humanity's interdependence with nature.

As a University of Nairobi representative to the National Council of Women of Kenya, she came to learn that rural women did not have enough firewood, their children were malnourished and the soil was eroding from their fields. It was then that she made the connection between environmental degradation and poverty and suggested to women that they plant trees to ameliorate their circumstances: trees prevent soil erosion, they supply firewood and nutritious fruit to combat malnutrition and can also provide economic benefits.

In fighting for a healthy environment for rural women, for good governance and human rights, Maathai had walked a path that brought her head to head with Daniel arap Moi, the president who had a stranglehold on power in Kenya for 24 years. In 1989, the Moi regime was behind the proposed construction of the Times Tower, a 62-story skyscraper in central Nairobi's Uhuru Park, "the people's park," as Maathai called it. She successfully stopped the construction of the tower. This was the first of many confrontations that pitted Maathai and Moi against one another.

She had suffered personally and publicly, yet she harbored no bitterness. In February 1992, for example, she demonstrated with the mothers of political prisoners in Uhuru Park at what came to be known as Freedom Corner. Hundreds of people demonstrated for several days. The Moi government sent in the General Service Unit, an arm of the Kenyan military, to brutally break up the demonstration. Maathai was beaten unconscious and was in a coma in a Nairobi hospital for many days.

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