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The Seeds of Change

by Archives January 27, 2009

As a little girl, Wangari Maathai didn’t know what her mother meant when she called the large fig tree in her yard “a tree of God.”
This curious girl, or “binti” in Swahili, was told never to use this tree’s timber as firewood. She was told she could take drinking water from the stream that ran beside it. In its gentle current, she would play. She would cradle the new-life of tadpole eggs in her hand, fancying their brilliance to the jewelry she hoped to one day own.
When she returned to her childhood home many years later, the stream had run dry and the fig tree, along with the entire forest, had been cut down. The fertile lands were gone. The hope for fruitful plantations had evaporated with them. The crack-dry plains of misled agricultural exploits and a crestfallen population were all that remained. One thing that dotted the barren landscape was a white steeple; “the house of God” had replaced “the tree of God.”
No food, not enough water, no firewood and no hope for a better life: these complaints were readily available on the lips of the hard-working Kenyan women everywhere Maathai traveled. What was the source of the problem? The people believed it to be the government, but Maathai wouldn’t let things become political. Instead she knew the hardships all these women faced were the symptoms of one thing and one thing only: Kenya had cut down too many of its trees. She had to do the right thing.
Taking Root is Cinemapolitica’s next screening, it follows the life and accomplishments of Maathai.
What began with the simple act of planting a tree grew into an entire movement in Kenya. All started by one woman. Maathai would encourage Kenyan women across East Africa to organize, to plant trees, and to right the wrongs of corrupt government and colonialism. The fruits of her labour include a Nobel peace prize, but her highest achievement was no doubt the way in which she strengthened a once dying Kenyan culture one seedling at a time.
Lisa Merton and Alan Dater produced and directed the film. The duo, who’ve worked on many award-winning documentaries, let Maathai tell the story. Weaved using only homegrown fibers, the film is as genuine as possible, and you can’t help but applaud the filmmaker’s sympathetic style.
Listening to Maathai is a pleasure all its own. She is an amazing storyteller as well as an amazing woman. Her proper diction provides sincerity as she narrates footage of Kenya’s troubled colonial past.
“We need humanity to stop killing [our] life support system, we are called to heal her wounds, and in the process, heal our own,” said Maathai at an early town meeting, when the momentum behind her project was only just beginning.
Maathai’s organization has planted over 35 million trees in Kenya, that’s almost one tree for every citizen. Taking Root brings us through the historical context of Maathai’s project while we listen to her tell a truly amazing story.

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