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Talking about 'Taking Root'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 4, 2009 - "Why not plant trees?"

It is such a simple question -- but one that would spark a grass-roots environmental movement in Kenya that eventually took on national overtones of political freedom and women's rights.

The story of that evolution is told in "Taking Root," a fascinating documentary about Wangari Muta Maathai, a Kenyan woman who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental and political work.

The film, which will be screened and discussed Thursday at the Missouri History Museum, as part of the Community Cinema Series, is a reminder that an individual may not be able to change the world but can certainly have an impact on one little piece of it.

Filmmakers Lisa Merton and Alan Dater used historical footage of Kenya's colonial days to set the context for a modern environmental crisis: areas of the country left devoid of firewood and water, the result of the practice of slashing forests to clear land for planting cash crops, such as tea and coffee.

Maathai's solution was to teach women to plant trees.

"It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. So we must stand up for what we believe in," Maathai says in the film.

But in the process, that "standing up" empowered the nation's women both politically and socially - a turn not welcomed by the Kenyan government.

And that, as they say, is where the documentary's plot thickens.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.