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Reviewed by:
  • For Our Land by Wanuri Kahiu
  • Kathryn Mara
Wanuri Kahiu, director. For Our Land. 2009. 49 minutes. English, Kikuyu, and Swahili (with English subtitles). Kenya. M-Net. Available for free viewing at

“I’m going to tell you a story about a girl who goes to fetch water,” Wangari Maathai proclaims in Kikuyu at the beginning of For Our Land. The documentary, directed by Wanuri Kahiu, a young promising Kenyan filmmaker, was commissioned by M-Net, a South African television channel, in order to tell the story of Maathai, the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate, as part of their flagship series, “The Great Africans.” Chronologically, For Our Land follows Kahiu’s directorial debut of the feature film From a Whisper (2008), but it discusses subject matter similar to that of her short futuristic science-fiction film Pumzi (2009), including environmental degradation and, to a lesser extent, climate change.

The film is chiefly concerned with giving voice to Maathai, a Kenyan environmental and political activist (who died two years after the film was made). In particular, the film highlights her creation of and involvement in the Green Belt Movement, a nongovernmental organization interested in planting trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights, as well as [End Page 328] her feat of becoming the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004, for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.” In so doing, For Our Land also narrates the relationship between European colonialism and environmental change, effectively using the metaphor of the colonists’ efforts to conquer and tame the unfamiliar and “wild” African jungle to illustrate the colonial enterprise more broadly. In addition, the documentary attempts to narrate the history of postindependence Kenya and ecological strife—namely, the process by which communal values have gradually changed from the cherishing of public land and respect for sacred trees to privatization through corruption and the elimination of green space in favor of growing cities.

In light of these varying trajectories, For Our Land is most successful in its presentation of the intersectionalities inherent in the causes with which Maathai concerns herself. Indeed, the film demonstrates that her struggle is a multipronged one, and that her various interests are connected, not competing. For instance, when describing the development of the Green Belt Movement, Maathai reflects on her conversations with women from rural areas who expressed their need for clean drinking water, firewood, food, and income. Maathai says that these discussions served as a “trigger” for her to take action, which, in turn, prompted her suggestion that they plant trees. She admits that “I wasn’t, of course, thinking about a movement. I was just thinking of something to do as a response to what the women from the countryside were saying.” The resulting movement, however, effectively suggests that the interests of these women and that of the environment are strikingly similar.

In a later scene Maathai is shown confronting government-paid guards at Karura Forest, where public land has been grabbed for the development of luxury homes. An onlooker translates the argument, describing the guards’ insistence that “You’re making it seem like this is your land! This is ours!” while Maathai and local citizens similarly challenge them, “How is it your land? This is our country! This is our forest! . . . We want to plant trees in our forest.” The battle over land and country makes visible the intersection of numerous factors, including power, privilege, and proximity. Though Maathai is ultimately victorious in this skirmish, the greater conflict between capitalism and the environment is never fully resolved in the film, which ends when construction of the housing development is stopped due to a fire.

Indeed, while the film provides a necessarily condensed synopsis of the fraught political, economic, and environmental landscape in which Maathai operated, For Our Land struggles to establish a concrete narrative direction. The documentary itself is framed as about a tribute to the life of Maathai; more often, however, it resembles a retelling of the events that have contributed to and sustained the Green Belt Movement since its inception in 1977, interwoven with Maathai’s personal memories and a brief...


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pp. 328-330
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