Wangari won the Nobel Peace prize in 2004 for her work in Kenya. Wangari first came to some prominence when she started a movement (The Green Belt) to address a shortage of firewood for cooking in villages, by simply planting trees. The villagers collected seeds and propagated them and nurtured them until large enough to be planted out.
Wangari’s story was inseparable from the political history of colonial and then dictator Moi’s abuses, power and economic exploitation. The film suggested a deliberate elimination of cultural heritage through the spread of Christianity so as to ‘tame’ the indigenous population. The Mau Mau uprising in 1952 eventually resulted in independence from the UK in 1963. However the removal of the forest to grow tea and coffee initiated under the colonial rule was accelerated after independence. This resulted in the loss of knowledge of traditional crops which exacerbated health issues from food shortages.
The Green Belt continued to expand and plant trees, despite challenges from the Moi regime. Wangari herself became used to challenging authorities and, with the momentum of the Green Belt behind her, succeeding. This included organising a hunger strike (11 months) for the release of political prisoners, protesting the selling public forests and spearheading a campaign using international connections, to prevent a hotel being built on a central Nairobi park. Moi was very unhappy as it showed the regime was not all-powerful.
When democratic elections were announced (which Moi lost), the Green Belt ran Civil and Education Centres to inform people about the election process an importance of voting. Education was largely by using stories and encouraging ordinary people to challenge the ‘ney sayers’ – Why should we not plant tress, What’s wrong with trees? Trees can’t vote! She stressed the importance of stories, and sharing stories, to stand up for what we believe in and not to be intimidated.
The film ended with the observation that ‘the little people (the ordinary person) can change this world’. Wangari Maathai was one of those people. An inspiring story.