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Bhan – My Sister, My Hero

Shot from Bhan's video on a village without a bridge which brought an impact.

Yesterday, after a gap of 5 months, I called Bhan didi (elder sister). On hearing my voice, she cried.

"I thought you had forgotten me,” she said, “I thought I had lost you."

I replied, "We are sisters. I can never forget you."

Yes, relationships are often born of love, affection and understanding. Also, heroes are sometimes ordinary people with extraordinary deeds. Bhan - whom I call my elder sister, is such a hero and we are sisters by the bond of love.

Meeting Bhan

Two years ago, while working for a non-profit media group based in Goa, I was selecting a group of men and women from slums and villages of India, to train them into video journalism.

One of the applicants was Bhan – a woman in her 40s, who hadn’t studied beyond 7th grade, knew nothing about videos or web and had her application form filled up by someone else. But, she lived and worked as a grass root activist in Chhattisgarh where, for over a decade, Maoist guerrillas have been fighting a bloody war against the government. Every year, hundreds of people died here in encounters or ambushes. So, my first thought was, “any woman who works in that war-like situation, is anything but fragile.”

We met a few months later, in March’2010, when she traveled to Goa to receive her training in video making. Draped in a faded blue sari, she wore a pair of slippers that had seen better days. She had traveled for three days on a train without a reservation, had slept poorly and looked exhausted. But when we met, she broke into a smile that lit up the entire surroundings; she carried so much warmth within her.

A story of perseverance

Warmth, however, isn’t the only quality that defines Bhan. She also has perseverance, kindness, honesty and above all, courage.

Widowed in the eighth year of marriage with three children and no money, Bhan lived in a house full of poverty and suffering. But instead of tears, she chose to shed sweat and stand on her own feet.

She found a job in an NGO as a paid volunteer. Carrying the youngest child on her back, (despite the hardship, she continued to send two of her other children to school) Bhan would cycle for miles, visiting villages where she would inform on and help the illiterate villagers access new government schemes on poverty elimination and rural employment. At the end of the month, she would receive a small salary - just enough for her and her children to survive.

Founding Jurmil Morcha and more

It has been nearly two decades since Bhan crossed her first mile on the cycle. Along the way, she has battled starvation, sickness and molestation. But she never stopped.

In Chhattisgarh, mining – both legal and illegal - is displacing thousands of tribal people, forcing them to migrate to other states. Those who stay behind are mostly women who live in abject poverty. 4 years ago, with a few such women, Bhan started an NGO called ‘Jurmil Morcha’ (jurmil = working hand in hand, morcha= group). With these women, she now mobilizes the displaced locals, organizes meetings and rallies, thus fighting against forced migration, non-payment of compensation, and environmental crimes like drying of rivers by the miners by overuse of water. After learning to make videos, Bhan also started to highlight the same issues through her videos.

In one such video, she highlighted the plight of a village that was surrounded by a river but had no bridge on it. Children of the village, who went to school on boats, risked drowning every monsoon. While shooting her video, Bhan also advised the villagers to send a petition to the district administration, demanding a bridge. This was soon done and, a few weeks later, the administration began constructing the bridge!

All along, however, Bhan also had personal battles to fight. She struggled to pay the school fees of her three children. And then, there was her husband’s brother who had snatched away her property when she became a widow. Now, Bhan’s growing involvement in social movements worried him: would she demand her share of the land?

To ensure that didn’t happen, in November ‘2010 he went to the police and told them that Bhan was seen roaming around with a camera, taking pictures. Maybe she was a Maoist spy?

Standing by a fighter

In Chhattisgarh, the police often detain and torture social activists and journalists as ‘suspected Maoist sympathizers’. So, on receiving the complaint from her brother in law, they promptly summoned Bhan to the police station.

Fortunately, I had called Bhan the previous evening. ‘I have to be at the police station tomorrow,’ she said, sounding unsettled. We both knew, there was a real danger of the police arresting her.

That night, I emailed a group of friends – mostly journalists - and asked them to call Bhan the next day and to tell her that she wasn’t alone.

The next day Bhan received many calls. Some called the police station directly and informed that Bhan was an activist and a reporter they knew well and that there was no reason to treat her with suspicion. Soon after, Bhan was allowed to go home.

A winner, a hero<?strong>

It has been 5 months since then. Work and struggle for survival kept me too occupied to call Bhan.

Now, connected again, she had good news for me: ‘A few weeks ago, my brother in-law invited me and my children to celebrate Diwali (Festival of lights) with his family. I felt very happy!”

I smiled: here was a woman who always did a lot for others, but wanted just dignity and a handful of love for herself. She was someone who always got the worst deal from life, but overcame all hurdles without begging or borrowing or stealing.

And this is why she is my hero – someone I can relate to, admire and draw strength and inspiration from.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Bhan(in pink sari holding a banner) leading a rally of displaced tribal people
Bhan learning to hold a camera
Bhan and I: I am training her in how to develop a story idea

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Comments

Leslie Stoupas's picture

Personal Strength

Your story is such a great reminder of our personal strength and how much we can achieve when we network and stick together. I love the part of the story where the reporters called the police station to make them aware that they knew about Bhan. It makes it harder for people to be "disappeared" when it is made clear that they have a network of people who will tell their story and fight for them. What an inspiring story of "sisterhood"!

Leslie Stoupas

Stella Paul's picture

Thank You Leslie

Thank you so much Leslie. I chose to tell the story of Bhan, out of several hundred women I know, because she epitomizes the extraordinary strength and ability of ordinary woman. She is the woman lives next door, one that we think has nothing special and therefore, not worth looking at twice. But if we do, we can find something so special, it can make each of us feel the power within. I am very happy that you liked it. God bless you and our sisterhood!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

usha kc's picture

Dear sis,, you came lately

Dear sis,,
you came lately but with such a powerful, heart-touching and motivating story of Bhan.

loved it dea

Stella Paul's picture

I am happy and excited

Yes My dear sister, I am back. Rachael and Scott gave me a week to submit my story. But I was so eager to join you all, soon after my 24-hour long flight, I sat until midnight and finished my story. I love you for reading it so quickly and commenting. I am now free and I am going to read everyone's story too. I am excited about that! Hugs!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

usha kc's picture

Welcome back sis:)) have

Welcome back sis:)) have rest.
hugs

Nusrat Ara's picture

Bhan is a determined woman.

Bhan is a determined woman. Thanks fro sharing her story.

Nusrat

Stella Paul's picture

She is, and so are we

Yes Nusrat, Bhan is a very ordinary woman, but the determination that she has is extraordinary. I think you, Nusrat and all of us here also have that quality and therefore we also are capable of being winners in life. I salute to that women power and I thank you for being so nice and supportive.

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Yes, In many place women activists are facing danger,they need our help and courage.

Stella Paul's picture

Thank you very much!

Thank you so much Redsbird. Yes, there is danger everywhere, especially for women like us who have no political or financial backing. Bhan is one of us and if she can overcome the danger, we all can. Thanks again sister for reading this!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

MaDube's picture

I have just been reading some

I have just been reading some more stories and then I saw your profile of Bhan and I wondered how you always mange to come across these amazing women, Stella. I guess it is true that bird of the same feather flock together. I suppose these strong and remarkable women are also attracted to your strong and remarkable character. She is indeed a hero.

Stella Paul's picture

You said it!

Well, my secret is out! "bird of the same feather flock together" - you just got it. But the flock here is one of battered women you know - women who always lived at the lowest rung of the ladder, always with their backs to the wall, so there is only one way to go: Forward! I develop complex talking to women who are perfect, but feel comfortable around those who are not. I know you feel the same way too. And that's why you belong to my flock too. Isn't that something great?

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Okeny-Lucia's picture

Bhan for Presidency!

Dear Stella,
Welcome home! I feel the heat of passion for Bhan to do good to humanity.It relates so well with women activists in my country.The late Wangari Maathai,rising from humble beginnings.I see a world of women in your community rising above the life,s challenges with dignity.
The expression of ideas is smooth ,feminine ,with care on tribulations of struggles that we can undergo in life and overcome.The power of networking and staying on cause without fear.It is a personal lesson learnt from this captivating profile.
Thank you for remaining focused to the women in India.

Lucia Buyanza
Reproductive Health

Stella Paul's picture

I felt the same

Dear Lucia

Thank you for these beautiful words (I am just starting to read other posts and hope to read yours soon too), they do make me feel welcome! I have missed you a lot. But would you believe, all through my stay in SA, I met hundreds of women from all over and every time I saw an Indian woman in each one of them. I had the luck to attend many events where rich tributes were paid to Wangari Mathai and again I felt reflections of ordinary women activists in her too. This is why I chose to tell the story of an ordinary woman who shows exemplary qualities...For me she symbolizes you and me and each one of us
Thank you and love you for reading again!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

smritikhanam's picture

Amazing story

I liked this story very much because I think went beyond just writing Bhan's life story, but also showed how you are building your relationship with her. Your story reminds me that even a very strong activist can be in problems and how as a journalist or a reader we can help her at that time. When I read your story, it made me feel very good that you just did not stop by writing an article. I am not good with my words, but I want to say that you are showing the importance and power of networking.

Stella Paul's picture

Thank you

Thank you very much for your encouraging comment. I also wanted to highlight that point - that even a hero needs the support of her friends and people in her network. And through this networks we can empower her even more and also be a hero ourselves. Thanks!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Wonderful

I love your story! It is so down to earth, about the day to day struggles and activism of one single woman. I would love to see her videos from the training--do you have links you can share with us? And what happened to the issue of her husband's land? I am already engrossed in her story.

Keep up the great work,

Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

Stella Paul's picture

I am glad

Dear Rachael

I am glad you liked this story. I particularly chose to tell this woman (out of a very long list of names) because she is the most ordinary, most untold, unwritten and also, most vulnerable (dirt poor, educated only till 7th grade and surrounded by sharks of all kind) woman I have known. It was a conscious decision to bring her to WP, because at times I feel all she has is her own self and a handful of friends who. again, stay far away from her. Here is a link to one of her videos http://www.typeboard.com/2010/08/tribals-suffer-while-indian-govt-and-ma...

She is struggling a lot right now with her videos, owing to many reasons. But she isn't afraid to use the camera which is something great. On the land issue, the family inviting her to celebrate Diwali has been a step forward. She hopes there will be a settlement soon, that she will get her share. I am planning to meet her sometime in January, to help her with her videos and also teach her the internet and hopefully I will have more good news by then. Its amazing that I can share all that with you. Its very comforting!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Kristin Miller's picture

Beautiful and inspired!

Stella Paul, you have done a magnificent job not just of introducing us to Bhan, but also of opening YOURSELF up to us! I love that you started your story with an indication of your deep, sisterly bond with this remarkable hero. I'm also taken by your poetic prose, my favorite example being "instead of tears, she chose to shed sweat and stand on her own feet." Beautiful!

What a tremendous first assignment! Kudos to you, Stella Paul, for this effort and success!

With admiration,
Kristin

Stella Paul's picture

Wow Kristin, I'm Honored!

Dear Kirstin

There is just so much power in those words of yours, I feel like I can do amazing things now, run any distance, if I get this kind of support that your message brings in! And this again is a proof that sisterhood and networking can do wonders, if we keep it running and alive! I mean there is Bhan and here I am and now there you are and among us, we already have got a cycle of strength and motivation! We don't need to have super power, or be super humans, if we can just stick together and use the power we have within. So thanks so much, for reading through, for getting the exact 'Pulse' of the story and lifting my spirits so high! A big hug too!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

amiesissoho's picture

It took a phone call

Stella dear I hope you realized that it took only a phone call to stop the harassment of an innocent woman. the sense of solidarity is important in the work of activists. While we defend the rights of others, our own rights need to be defended. Thanks for the story.

Amie

Stella Paul's picture

Thank You Amie

Dear Amie

Absolutely dear, you got it very right: sometimes, a small, but timely action (which we are all capable of taking) can help achieve a lot in life. I also think that by supporting deeply, we can create a hero in each one of us, because each of us has something special. Much love, Amiesisoho!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Sahro's picture

Aw what a beautiful story!

What a hero Bhan is! Thank you for sharing this Stella. You write so beautifully! Poetic eloquence!

Thank you also for the constant and interesting reporting from South Africa.

Oh and thank you for the twitter message! I have been done lately with a really bad flu from which i am still recovering.

Lots of love, Sah

WorldPulse Community Advisory Board Member
Globcal Ambassador at: https://www.facebook.com/301986015692/photos/a.10150304573125693.561701....
Founder

Stella Paul's picture

Love to you too

Dear Sahro
I am relishing every moment of our interaction, no matter where that's happening. It excites me to think that I have friends in countries like Somalia! That's awesome you know, and gives me this heady feeling, like I am flying...

On Bhan, she is your woman next door, woman who nobody stares at twice or even bothers to know her name. And when you say you liked her story, that she is a hero, its like celebrating the everyday woman. That excites me and fills me with gratitude and more love for you. Btw, I fell in love with the music in the basketball video and downloaded it promptly!!!

Hugs!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Cali gal Michelle's picture

inspiring

thank you for taking the time to write such a great piece- I struggle with a bit of envy for all of the chosen VOF women who get to speak with each other and connect on such a visceral level- something I, too, long for. But it was not the time for me, and reading your articles encourages me to continue connecting, writing, and simply 'being' among my WP web community. So, thank you for your efforts which I know are great. And for your writing which has pieces of your soul all throughout.

Peace be with you this season-

Michelle

Let us Hope together-
Michelle
aka: Cali gal

Listener
Sister-Mentor
@CaliGalMichelle
facebook.com/caligalmichelle

Stella Paul's picture

Yes,you are!

Dear Michelle

The VoF program is only for 5 months, if you remember.But our bond is here to stay forever.So, feeling connected to each other and being inspired is what really matters, because this is what is going to keep us in one flock, if you know what I mean! Having said that, I am really happy that you could make the time to read and to comment. You touched my heart by doing that! God bless you and here's wishing you a wonderful holiday season ahead! Love!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Cali gal Michelle's picture

thanks

Thanks Stella!

Let us Hope together-
Michelle
aka: Cali gal

Listener
Sister-Mentor
@CaliGalMichelle
facebook.com/caligalmichelle

mrbeckbeck's picture

Wonderful woman

Stella,
Great work! I love your writing style, especially in the opening here. I really feel like I can see her smile light up the room when the two of you first met in Goa. I love her determination and ambition, which you so clearly respect.

Thanks for sharing this story of an incredible woman working for dignity and respect at the edges of society.

Best wishes for the new year ahead!
Scott

Scott Beck
World Pulse Online Community Manager

Stella Paul's picture

Bhan says thanks!

Dear Scott
I actually read this comment with Bhan sitting beside me. Since she doesn't know English at all, I read it aloud, translating for her and, well, the same smile came back on her face! And now you have thanks, both from me and Bhan.
I have been on a tour of Chhattisgarh state, meeting Bhan and several other women who are trying to do some constructive work despite being caught in the civil war (Govt vs Maoists) and accessing Internet is like finding water in a desert, since I am mostly in the remote villages.
Anyway, hopefully I can be back in time to share with you some stories that I have found here. Until then, love!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Chinemu's picture

Stella

I was so glued to your story, ilove your writing, the character of Bhan is something i can't even describe, tahnks for sharing her story

Stella Paul's picture

Thanks Chinemu

Dear friend

I am in a remote region for over a week, which is why I couldn't reply earlier. Your comment means a lot especially when I am struggling to meet women in difficult area and dodging a lot of pebbles to gather their stories. Thanks!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

R's picture

"Sisters by the bond of love..."

Dear Stella

I'm so inspired by your warm and empathic portrayal of this determined and courageous woman. Bhan is a true hero and you really have captured her strength of character and her perseverance in this profile. I watched the video link that you posted in your reply to Rachael above, and I was AWESTRUCK by Bhan's total professionalism and competence as a speaker. She looks like she could 'outrally' any seasoned politician and when speaking direct to camera she appears and sounds like a trained SKY or CNN reporter. Congratulations on your excellent job of portraying the power that grassroots activists can wield and for telling us about Bhan's 'Jurmil Morcha' group. This inspirational story emanates the energy of true empowerment and I can feel the depth of empathy and love that exists between the two of you.

Warmest wishes to you and Bhan
Rosemary

Stella Paul's picture

Means a lot!

Dear Rosemary

I am presently in the state where Bhan lives. Since the story above, I started to think of how to write in a way so Bhan herself can benefit and get connected with the world. So, now, I have been writing a 5-story series on her which are appearing on Panos, London's website. The stories are written by me, but they appear as Bhan's 1st person account. I have just spent 8 long days with Bhan, sleeping, eating and traveling together. This is my humble effort to let the world community connect with this marginalized woman directly. Here is the link to the first of the series. I hope you like it. http://panos.org.uk/2012/01/04/what-women-need-is-economic-independence/

And, as I travel through the land of difficulties, my spirits are lifted by your beautiful comments. Thank you so much!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Greengirl's picture

Sis Stella!!!!!!!!!!!

You just have your way with words and with people. With you, now I know more than ever before that the theory that unlike poles attract and like poles repel, only holds true for magnets. Who wouldn't be attracted to Visionaries like you and Bhan. The seemingly little things we do, certainly creates ripples beyond our wildest expectations.
I am inspired!

Olanike

Stella Paul's picture

Thank you so much!

Thank you my dear sister, both for reading and giving such a generous and encouraging comment. After I wrote this story, Panos London (a global development media org) asked me to write a 4-story series on her which I have just finished. It was very well received. During that time (January) I visited Bhan and discovered many more horrors that she lives with - the constant harassment by the police keeps happening. She is also dirt poor and yet she won't quit working for the society. I too am deeply inspired! As you say, just by staying in touch and doing small thing, we can indeed help each other a lot!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Mukut's picture

Inspiring

Such an inspiring and riveting story of Bhan. Wish every woman could muster the courage and will to cum out on top and be strong just like her. I am sure after reading her story, many would.

Thanks so much for sharing.

Mukut Ray

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