Wangari Maathai’s legacy
Prof. Wangari Muta Maathai, the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize, would have been 80 on April 1.

Wangari Maathai’s legacy

A filmmaker reflects on the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and ponders what she would have to say about the coronavirus pandemic of today and its lessons for how we care for the Earth

MARLBORO — April 1, 2020, would have been the 80th birthday of Professor Wangari Muta Maathai, the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004, “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

“Prof,” as she was affectionately known, had a special relationship with Windham County. She had a long friendship with the Guilford Community Church through Rev. Lise Sparrow and was a board member of World Learning.

It also happened that two Marlboro filmmakers - Alan Dater and I - had the great good fortune to make a film about her life and work and were closely connected with her for nearly a decade, until her death on Sept. 25, 2011.

Alan and I were asked by the Hartley Film Foundation to make a 10-minute film about Professor Wangari Maathai. A board member had heard Prof speak in New York City and was so moved by her story she felt compelled to introduce her to a wider audience.

In 2000, we headed to Yale School of Forestry, where Prof was teaching. She sailed into the room where we had set up, her brightly patterned kitenge dancing around her body.

Her smile was luminous. We got right to work on an interview that lasted for several hours and became the backbone of our film Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai. Our prepared questions quickly led to a more fluid conversation.

President Daniel arap Moi was still in power in Kenya at the time of the interview and had been since 1978. Wangari had been brought into direct opposition to Moi by her environmental activism, quest for multiparty elections, democratic space, and the rights of women. The Green Belt Movement (GBM), the organization she founded, empowers communities, particularly women, to conserve the environment and improve livelihoods.

As she spoke, her tone was urgent. She was clear in her vision for the people of Kenya and the land that had nurtured her. Moi's government was destroying the environment, grabbing public lands, jailing and “disappearing” opponents and muzzling the press.

She described it as a terror government. She recounted with riveting detail the harrowing events at Freedom Corner when she had led a large group of women on a hunger strike to demand the release of their sons, who were political prisoners.

She had been brutally beaten and was unconscious when she arrived at the hospital. She remained there for days, guarded around the clock by a GBM board member.

Wangari recounted that Moi had called her a madwoman and a threat to the security and order of the country. Yet, even though her life was constantly under threat by his regime, her words to us were not bitter.

Her ready laugh bubbled up as she told stories of her childhood, the magic of learning to read, and the weary, wondrous walk home under the stars with her family, rakes and hoes resting on their shoulders as they sang and listened to the music of the Gura River after a long day of cultivating the red soil of the Central Highlands.

She was of the land. She called herself “a child of the soil.” Her understanding and power came from that soil, from living the rhythms of the natural world. When she later ended up in academia for 15 years as a professor at the University of Nairobi, she remembered that feeling of the soil under her feet, in her bones, in her heart.

I felt it in her hand when she held mine: a strength, a love, a knowing, that she could transmit just by being.

We were entranced and deeply affected by Wangari's story. She was a prophet for our time. A ten-minute film? Impossible.

She leaned forward in her chair, her eyes wide. “What? You're not coming to Kenya?” Of course you must come to Kenya.”

So we went, and, as Wangari used to say, “...and the rest is history!”

* * *

These last weeks, as people from around the world have requested footage in order to celebrate Wangari Maathai's legacy on her 80th birthday, or commemorate her for other reasons, I've been deep in her words and world.

It's no coincidence she should come back into my life in such a profound way when her vision for the Earth is just what we need now.

A few days ago, we were looking for footage of her laughing so someone could use it in an animation; then, we found some clips of Green Belt Movement tree planting for U.N. Women for International Women's Day; and then came some footage for Ecosia, the search engine that plants trees by donating profits toward reforestation efforts.

As I look at footage of this beautiful, brave, powerful woman, I am struck once again by Wangari's humility and her amazing ability to have chosen the right issue at the right time.

She worked in the same way as the natural world, paying attention to the interconnectedness of issues and not their separation.

How are you going to teach people to care about the natural world if they are poor and will burn the last tree standing to cook beans if it will save the life of their child?

You show them how healthy, intact forests and fertile soil will support them better. You teach them to plant indigenous trees that hold the soil and filter water through their broad root structures. You compensate them for their work - just a few cents for every tree they plant that survives - until they're on their feet and can see the benefits of repairing a degraded environment, an environment that they, too, have helped to destroy in their need for resources.

They learn that they have the power and knowledge to take care of themselves - to better their land for the health of their families and their communities.

Wangari used to say, “You have to be patient, you have to be committed, and you have to be persistent.” And she was. Always. Since 1977, when she founded the Green Belt Movement under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Kenya, she had remained consistent to her vision against enormous odds.

* * *

I remember one day in July 2006, we had plans to film Wangari in a church in Githakwa, a small village in the Central Highlands near the Aberdare Forest, one of Kenya's five “water towers.”

We had all been rambling around in the forest, identifying trees, learning from her about the vast differences between an indigenous forest like the Aberdares and a commercial plantation.

We examined mosses and fungi growing on rotting logs as Wangari reflected on how death gives birth to life. Suddenly, we came across some government foresters in a recently cleared open space. They surely wished they could disappear into the ground when they saw her.

Where they stood, a small, muddy rivulet ran through a wider gully. Wangari remembered it as a healthy stream in a thick, closed canopy forest like the one where we had just been. She stood with her hands on her hips, her face contorted with disappointment, a torrent of Kikuyu aimed at the foresters.

When we later entered the church, there was a great cacophony of drumming, a pounding of dancing feet and an exaltation of voices so thrilled at her finally arriving. She stood solidly before the congregation, her arms and hands illustrating her words in rapid Kikuyu.

As her fingers rippled through the air, I could see the rain coming down and then her open palms, fingers outstretched, as she showed the villagers how the rain was wasted if they didn't gather it in their cupped hands and use it to water the seedlings they had planted.

Her movements were deft, illustrative in a way that strengthened her words. Always the teacher. She looked serious, but also laughed easily, and quoted the Bible that she and the congregation knew so well.

* * *

So what would Wangari have to say about COVID-19 and the havoc it's wreaking on the human population?

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, we're in the most precarious time we have ever faced as a species. The climate crisis threatens the existence of life on Earth as we know it.

COVID-19 could be just a dry run for the real crisis. It could be a wake-up call to our species that we are not the only ones here. We are completely dependent on this blue orb that sustains us and all the other species that are integral to its balance. “The water you drink, the air you breathe, the food you eat - that's what you become.”

The natural world is getting a break from us because of the coronavirus. Levels of nitrogen dioxide, and air pollution in general, are way down. Maps measuring nitrogen dioxide in Wuhan, China from last year show the region blanketed in fiery colors, with deeper red patches signifying high concentrations of the pollutant. This year, maps of the same region are nearly all blue, showing lower concentrations.

Are we paying attention? Can we keep on blasting ahead, constantly producing more and more products for consumption, when we live on a finite planet?

Or will we embrace the hard lesson that this crisis presents to us?

These words from Wangari's 2004 Nobel Peace Prize speech are a perfect answer.

“It is 30 years since we started this work,” she said. “Activities that devastate the environment, and societies continue unabated.”

“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 - indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder.

“This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process.

“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.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates