The Environmental Legacy of Wangari Maathai

In my years spanning two graduate degrees through the 1990s, among the foremost, lasting impressions is the tenacity, graciousness – and commitment to the larger good – that African students brought to their studies and also to their interactions with fellow students and professors.

Indeed, entire African villages usually had raised the funds to support selected individuals to do graduate studies abroad, in order to become future bridge-builders between their home communities and outside influences – for the well-being of the grassroots people.

What struck me were two qualities: first of all, a deep sense of community instead of focus on one’s self. Secondly, in many private and group conversations, I never detected personal animosity, or cultural rage, directed towards the descendants of the colonial powers that had destroyed the spiritual and ecological practices of diverse Indigenous cultural communities across the African continent (and other continents).

Without such personal encounters, would I be accurately informed and aware of the fuller human capabilities of African people and, equally important, even begin to understand their cultural perspectives, if I only relied upon mainstream news stories? I think not. That is why documentary films have such a vital educational role, for example, when they give voice to grassroots, and other marginalized, folks, as well as to the visionaries whose messages are pertinent to the whole human family.

The late Professor Wangari Maathai was one such proactive visionary, until she succumbed to cancer on September 25, 2011, at age 71. Professor Maathai’s call to action, when she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, was emblematic of her understanding about what sustains life on this planet:

“Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking so that humanity stops threatening its life support system. We are called to assist the earth to heal her wounds. And in the process, heal our own… In the course of history there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness. To reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”

She embodies the power that resides within every caring human soul, in her chosen quest to restore the trees of Kenya and, moreover, redevelop the traditional skills of rural grassroots women to plant their own food and feed their children needlessly suffering from malnutrition because of corporate and political interests.

A journey that began with Wangari Maathai’s 1977 creation of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya took her on an odyssey to recognize how to connect the dots between rural women’s poverty, malnourished children, the deforestation problem, the severe decrease in clean water, and the deterioration of the soil. Focusing on the causes instead of the symptoms of the causes, she then empowered the rural women to plant trees, initially to restore the water and the soil. Professor Maathai knew, however, that doing so, in turn, would restore their self-confidence, and equip them as communities, to challenge the bigger, related issues.

Her own life, meanwhile, was hit by several blows. They were the results of her standing up for values that would restore and sustain the environment and, in turn, nurture greater democracy and peace. Alas, these values were not shared by the Kenyan dictatorship of President Daniel arap Moi. Her husband divorced her; President Moi publicly ridiculed her. When she ran for government, the university terminated her teaching post, her income and her housing. She also was arrested and imprisoned several times, her own life, ultimately, in constant danger.

Her tenacious journey is mapped eloquently in the documentary film Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, co-directed and co-produced by Lisa Merton and Alan Dater, partners of Marlboro Productions, in the United States. Lisa Merton spoke via Skype at a screening this past weekend at the Richmond Hill Public Library, in Ontario, Canada, to a keenly engaged audience.

“She is such a force of Nature and she personifies everything she believed in,” said Merton, to the Richmond Hill audience, from her home in Vermont. “Her path led her on a holistic approach to change.” Merton, who attended the funeral for Wangari Maathai, held in Uhuru Park, Nairobi, still feels the vitality of Maathai’s spirit.

“Such hallowed ground,” Merton reminded the audience. They had just watched scenes in the film when Maathai initiated an international furor to save this park from being razed for a multinational high rise office development. On another occasion, she and a large group of rural women camped out in the park, to demand the release of political prisoners detained because of speaking out against the Moi regime. Police attacked the women.

Marlboro Productions is dedicated to a huge, long term task to dub their film Taking Root in various languages, and find NGOs willing to fund workshops, to help people globally in environmentally degraded regions.

“Everything is inextricably linked,” she said. People living directly on the land more easily understand that fact though, than those of us who no longer live immersed in a natural environment, in order to appreciate, viscerally, our dependence upon other planetary life.

Regardless, Wangari Maathai, courageously and lovingly, shows what we hold in common as a human family – our dependence upon a healthy planetary environment and, as well, traditional values that she identified as innate within each person: love for the environment, self-betterment, gratitude and respect, and a commitment to service.

For further information and how to order the film, see Regarding books and other publications by Wangari Maathai, and the continuing legacy of her activism, see

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