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Inspiration, in the land of despair

November’2005. In Handitola- a remote village in central India, people were faced with a horrific situation: a young Dalit (a marginalized community) man had hung himself and the body was on the verge of decomposing. But nobody dared go near him. They all had their reasons: for some, the boy was an ‘untouchable’, while others were plain scared. Then, a woman of 50 came up, with a sickle in her hand. She stood upon a stool, and, as the whole village stared in fear and awe, cut the rope and lowered the body. Next week, in a meeting in which they had to decide who would be their ‘Sarpanch’ - the head of the village council, everyone voted for this woman – the most courageous one among them. And that is how Sukhantibai - a Gond (a primitive tribe) woman, became the ‘Sarpanch’.

In the line of fire

7 years later, I am meeting Sukhantibai today. I have traveled for 3 days to reach her village in Rajnandgan – one of the 78 districts identified by the government of India as ‘Maoist affected,’ meaning places that have borne maximum brunt of the Government vs Maoists (communists) armed conflict.

On my way, I have been feeling the suspicious glare of several people, and, since I reached the district, my mobile phone has gone off the network. Now, sitting in an old, rickety bus, I feel like walking on the fire: this is a land where people, suspected as police informers or Maoist sympathizers, often vanish without a trace. Sometimes they end up in a jail, other times only bullet-ridden bodies are found. Today, I could be one of them.

However, coming from the North east India, another conflict zone, I know how to ignore those glaring eyes and shrug off these thoughts. So, instead, I focus on what I have come to do: find out how a woman – especially a marginalized one like Sukhantibai - manages to live in this war zone and head an entire village.

A ‘Sarpanch’ without a toilet

However, once I reach her village, I am told that the ‘sarpanch’ has gone to supervise the work being carried out under the government's rural employment scheme. In the two hours that I wait, I look around her house (a mud hut with uneven walls and a tiny courtyard): there is a wood stove, a couple of earthen pots and a few small tins containing tea leaf and spices. This is her kitchen. A few feet away, on a line, dry a few pieces of clothes. I look around and see no toilets. As I begin to wonder if she lives without a toilette, a woman with dusty feet and dreadlocks enters the home, with folded hands and a wide smile. Now, finally I have met the ‘sarpanch’ of Handitola.

I ask her straightaway: 'Why can't I see any toilet in your house?'

Her smile fades immediately. She replies, 'the government has a plan to provide toilet for all. It's called 'Nirmal gaon yojana’ (clean village scheme). My village has received money to implement this scheme. But there is a huge scarcity of water in the village. Without enough water, what is the point of building a toilet?'

‘So, how long will you live without a toilet?’ I want to know.

'I have applied for running water supply to the village. The money is coming in small amounts. There are 450 families here. So far, 170 of them have received water and toilets. I am trying to ensure that the rest of the families get them before my term ends.’

Her answer is candid, but there is something she is withholding: since her house is at the end of the village, she will be among the last to receive the benefits of any scheme. Because, normally, the supply starts at the beginning of the village.

This is an important fact about the kind of sarpanch she is: if she wanted, she could have got the water straight to her house, like most others do. But she has instead let herself be among the "rest" who will have to wait for their turn to come. This is a sign of her honesty.

From village laborer to the village head

‘It is this honesty that probably has helped her enabled her win everyone’s trust, including the Maoists who are known for opposing any government development project,’ I think. Presently, I want to know what inspired her to enter politics - a profession not known for too many marginalized leaders, let alone women.

Her story is as captivating as her smile and as I listen, my fatigue and the previous discomfort of being ‘watched’ vanishes fast:

As a poor landless tribal woman, she worked as a laborer in the house of the 'Patel' - the richest man in her village. Life was difficult and after 5th grade she could not study further. At 15 years of age, she was married, to a marginal farmer of the same village. In next few years, she became the mother to four children - two boys and two girls. Her village then had no electricity, no roads and no drinking water save a single pond that was full only during the monsoon.

Then one day, in 1992, she met someone from the government health department who told her about Leprosy - a disease dreaded by her entire village. 'Contrary to what people think, Leprosy is curable and the treatment is totally free', he told her 'if you find anyone who doesn't know this, share this information with them.'

After he left, Sukhantibai thought, ‘I must share this information with as many people as possible’. So, she organized a health awareness camp in her village and the response was tremendous: people came from faraway villages. 'They had advanced state of leprosy; some had lost fingers, others had no toes. Though I had only planned to tell them about the availability of medicine, I ended up cleaning their wounds, bandaging, taking their contact details and then informing the district health center to distribute medicine to these people. It made me very happy to see these people, who had given up all hopes on life, now getting hopes again,' she recalls. And that is how she came to discover the joy of serving people.

That this 'joy' is not a cliche, becomes evident when I go out with her on a tour of her village. The village school, previously offering only elementary level education, has been upgraded to secondary level. There are separate toilets for boys and girls. Also, the village boasts of a primary health center, a large playground, a community hall, a community temple, electricity poles and drinking water taps. As she shows me these like a champion shows off his trophies I catch the pride of a rural woman who has been successful in doing something for her community - usually a deprived lot.

We meet several villagers during the tour. Sukhantibai pauses for a while to meet each and everyone. She scolds a woman for cleaning her plates in front of the house ('you have to stop being so irresponsible. Days are changing. Use the backyard for all your cleaning jobs’), massages the feet of an elderly woman ('are you feeling any better, Amma?') who has been suffering from joint pain and asks a group of children why they were not playing (‘children must play to stay fit’, she tells me later). Unlike most politicians, her camaraderie with the villagers is genuine because, she is the daughter of this village who, from the level of a domestic help, has risen to the rank of the village head. To inspire them to join school, she herself took up books at the age of 53 and passed 8th grade under the Open school system. And she is sharing the problems of the entire village, especially when it comes to land and water.

‘My family bought this house from the Patel, who I worked for’, she explains, sadness welling in her voice, ‘it has been 15 years since then, but he still has not transferred the ownership of the land in our name. I keep requesting him, but he ignores me, as though he still is my employer.'

‘So, are you not considering approaching the court?’ I can’t resist asking.

She replies, 'I do (consider filing a case) that every now and then. But then I think of the problems of others in my village that I must solve: lack of safe drinking water, lack of water to irrigate their fields and no toilets. I, then, forget my own grief. Court cases are lengthy affairs and I have no time to get involved into that right now.'

Give the best you have, and the best will come back to you

Her reply takes me by surprise: in India, one of the most corrupt countries in the world, where finding an honest politician is like finding water in the desert, I have a woman who has no time to think of her own needs! As though she can read my thoughts, Sukhantibai says, 'I know the land ownership is my right, but I at least have enough to eat a square meal and wear a coarse sari. My people here don't even have that. If I, the sarpanch, start feeling sorry for myself, who will feel for my people?' she asks.

‘But, what about the day when you are no longer the sarpanch? Will these people help you then?’ I want to know.
Confidence oozes out of her voice: ‘My people have selected me for a second term and I know that as long as I put them before me, they will put me ahead of them. They will never let me down’.

And then she breaks into a wide smile. 'We have ‘Mandai’ (a fair) in the village today? Come, let’s go there and have some fun', she says with the enthusiasm of a teenager.

As we walk to the Mandai venue, Sukhantibai tells me that alcoholism is a growing problem among the village youth and during festivals like Mandai it just grows out of proportion. ‘Earlier, our people (tribal) consumed only organic drinks, made out of Mahua (a local flower) flower. But now, people from outside come here and sell adulterated alcohol which is killing our young people,’ she says.

So what is she doing to stop this? ‘I deal with them like I would deal with my own grandsons: tell them that I will break their legs if I catch them drunk,’ she says with a smile, yet sounding serious.

Inspiration, in the land of despair

The ‘Mandai’ has several makeshift food kiosks. Sukhantibai enters one that is run by two young women and orders two plates of samosas and tea. Looking fondly at the women, she tells me ’10 years ago, none of our girls would step outside their homes. Today, they are running shops and businesses. It makes me very happy. But, I want them to enter politics also. Women must have a say in the affairs of the village.’

It’s getting dark and time for me to leave. Tomorrow, I will travel to another village, to meet more women who live in this conflict zone, but are trying to do something constructive. Tomorrow, I will court the danger yet again. Will I fare well? I don't know. But right now, under the setting winter sun, with the dusty road under my feet, and the invisible guns somewhere behind the border of the village, I hug Sukhantibai - a barefoot soldier who is fighting a war against discrimination, injustice and poverty with the only weapons she has: strong will and honesty.

And now I am inspired enough to walk another hundred mile.

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.

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smritikhanam's picture

Wonderful!

Only one word to describe it all - Wonderful! And 'Salaam' to your courage and spirits, Stella

Stella Paul's picture

Glad you liked it

Thank you Smriti. You are always very encouraging!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Dear Stella

I have been reading your stories from the war zone for sometime and admiring the tremendous courage you are showing in bringing out the most unheard stories of the women to us. For that alone I also salute you my friend! As for this story, it is strong, powerful, poetic and truly, truly inspiring. God bless you and god bless Sukhantibai and all the women you are meeting!

Stella Paul's picture

Grateful

Dear Gabi

I am very grateful for all the support you are extending. I came to World Pulse with the aim of telling the unheard stories of marginalized women. Personal security is important, but sometimes I really feel the need of putting those concerns aside because otherwise these stories will go unheard forever, or be distorted. God bless you too

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

usha kc's picture

Hey sis You always make us

Hey sis
You always make us compelled to be locked inside your writting and yes this time too. Sukhantibai's story is so inspiring to all i salute her courage and determination.
thank you so much fo sharing her story .

Hugs

Stella Paul's picture

I thought of Nepal many times

Dear sister Usha

The situation in Sukhantibai's village is just how the situation was in Nepal till 2006: the government is fighting the Maoists, the Maoists are fighting the army and police and, in the middle of all these, women are fighting not just guns and bullets, but gender bias, illiteracy and poverty. I thought of Nepal many times while writing Sukhanibai's story.

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Monica Clarke's picture

How I wish I could write like

How I wish I could write like you, Stella. Your writing is like a big broom, sweeping across a sky of dark happenings, touching here, noticing there, sweeping the dust together into a corner, then sprinkling it into a bin and - voila! out comes the magic of inspiration through your insight.

You are a true journalist. I'm stunned by your talent. The village of Sukhantibai brought back Natal to me very vividly. Thank you for the memories and for showing that there are gold nuggets buried in every field of injustice, dishonesty and poverty.

With continued admiration from Monica in France

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

Stella Paul's picture

That's a true gem

Dear Monica
I am going to keep this comment of yours in my archive because its is one of the most touching comments I ever got in my writing life. I am calling it touching not because it is complimenting me, but because how well and how vividly you grasped the real message of the story and found similes between this virtually unknown village and your mother land. And that made me feel that I am walking to my goal - bringing together,connecting the isolated women with the women of a connected world. Your past and your work has been an inspiration for me always, so when you identify that 'gold nugget', I can only smile radiantly! Love and prayer!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Okeny-Lucia's picture

The Power is in the mind!

Fear,feminism,fate are the three words that make women not reach the dreams of their lives.Sukhantiba reminds me of Amimo(module 1) ,they have dispelled all three words,and power is in their mind to help the society.Well done.

Lucia Buyanza
Reproductive Health

Stella Paul's picture

Thanks!

Thank you Lucia for reading through. An old Indian proverb says that a woman's main three enemies are 'Shyness, hatred and fear' and those who can overcome these, are real winners. I am trying to introduce to the world women who I think are winning over these enemies.

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Celine's picture

Thank you Stella for sharing

Thank you Stella for sharing the story of Sukhantibai and her village with us. It is interesting to me knowing that women can head villages, this is very rare in Nigeria, where women are sometimes made deputies to men who are elected into such positions. Women hardly win elections into political positions.

Again Stella, your writing style is stunning. Well done.

Hugs,
Celine

Stella Paul's picture

Future can be different

Dear Celine

Well, even 10 years ago, women in India almost couldn't become Panchayat (village council) heads. Then we had a new law that reserved 33% of seats for women and now the same is being upgraded to 50%. Though most of them become puppets in their husbands' hands, at least legally, women can be the leaders.

From the recent event of protests against oil subsidy cut and how you made the government of Nigeria bend to its knee, I am sure things will change in the future for women. When so many women are coming out, leading the movement, things can only go one way: Forward.

Lets look at that day with hopes. Hugs to you too!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

mirette's picture

Stella, You have an

Stella,
You have an adventurer soul! It sounds from your stories that you always looks for the most dangerous, less traveled roads to travel, dig deep and come out with the most inspiring of stories, and in my opinion, that's what a true journalist is all about! Thanks for sharing those adventures with us!
Mirette

Stella Paul's picture

You are a bridge too

I just began my day in India and reading your story is one of the first things on my card. But you beat me with your speed, understanding and kindness! Since I joined this community, my passion for bonding with women and writing on them has multiplied. And that gives me the courage Mirette. I know you are bridging the gap yourself between two (or more) sections of people who live in their isolated states of thoughts.
I am trying to do the same. Together, I am sure we are doing something meaningful to the world. Hugs!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

noreens's picture

i love strong, unusual women

i love strong, unusual women like Sukhantiba. She is an inspiration!

Noreen

Stella Paul's picture

She will be happy

Next time I am going to meet her, will tell her a beautiful woman from America (the only foreign country, other than Pakistan she knows that exists :) :) praised her. Am sure her smile will get wider than ever!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Wonderful

Your story transported me right along with you as you walked to the village fair and chatted with this amazing woman. You truly have a gift for writing. As a frontline journal though, for me it's missing the personal experience, the emotion of why you are doing this. What has driven you to interview these women? What makes the Maoist uprising personal for you? However, it was a great piece! Thank you for sharing her courageous story.

Kind regards,

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

Thank you!

Thanks Rachael for reading through and giving your feedback! Much appreciated!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Judy K's picture

Hope & joy

Your article bought me back to the emotional rollar coaster of my experiences in India. Like you, I would feel overwhelmed by the hardships and corruption of public officials but then be lifted by the joy and hope I saw in everyday people, especially those whose lives were filled with hardships. This woman's story shows us that life is worth living whenever you share what you have with others and maintain hope. In her case, she shares knowledge and brings joy and hope, which lead to action.

This is an important piece. It opens our eyes to the struggles most people face in India. In spite of its claim to be the largest democracy and leading economy in Asia, many of its people live in the same or worse conditions than when it was a British Colony. The players may have changed but the country is still ruled by colonial masters who may be Indian but are more interested in profits than the welfare of its citizens. Does saying this make me a "maoist?"

Thanks again for this wonderful piece.

Judy

Judy Kugelmass

Stella Paul's picture

Thanks, with a smile

Dear Judy

I can imagine the 'rollercoaster ride' you must have had here. The last of my friends from abroad who visited India used to say, 'I can define my experience in every country but India because how don't know which way to look at the country'.
Anyway, coming back to your comment, well, when there's a war and a desperate govt bent on winning that war, logic and truth become the first casualties. Unlike most civil wars across the world, the Maoist uprising is more a direct result of the govt's failure to provide the basic minimum to its people. But say it aloud and you run the risk of being a Maoist. That's the absurdity of the situation. The good news, however, is that there are people who are just not ready to quit and sit idle, no matter what.

Thanks so much again for reading through and reflecting on your experience. Love!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Leslie's picture

A model piece

"...a young Dalit (a marginalized community) man had hung himself and the body was on the verge of decomposing. But nobody dared go near him...."

How do you not read on? This is the example of what writing should do. Drag us readers in and not let go. The stark details coupled with a powerful subject matter refuses to let a reader leave. Who can walk away without knowing what happened to the body? Why was it there? What was he hung for? You're so curious, as a reader, that there's simply no escaping.

Using Sukhantibai as a tool to illustrate India's largest problems on a microcosmic scale is an exceptional writing tool. One could write a dry dissertation on the geo-political and economic issues facing India but to vicariously capture it in the daily life and ongoing struggles of one woman is a story no one will ever forget and can attach themselves to. By carrying the reader into Sukhantibai's shoes we can feel India's pain. We can feel your thoughts and we can feel the village's lives without ever having been there because you transported us through the details.

I think I could recognize Sukhantibai without ever having met her because of your descriptions, the dusty feet and dreadlocks, the smile, the disposition and sheer grit. I may never remember her name, but even without a picture, I know her face.

Good job.

Leslie

Stella Paul's picture

I am breathless

Oh wow Leslie! How does one reply to such a great comment!!! It actually re-introduced me to the protagonist and the situation, which I personally met. I don't even have words to thank you for reading it so thoroughly and articulating so well!

The challenges of writing about a god woman is that you just don't want to leave anything out. And when this woman happens to be in a war zone, the challenge becomes even greater. 2000 word is a fairly good space, yet you feel scared that it is not wide enough to portray all the information. Being precise sometimes means being short on emotion.And emotion isn't what you want to cut down because its qualities like passion and emotion, not scissor-like precision, that people like Sukhantibai are all about.

I have shot a video of the woman as well - one that I will struggle editing. Condensing a great story like this in 2.5 min will be an arduous task! Anyway, coming back to what I had started with, I indeed am grateful to you for this comment, for reliving my memory and making me feel that its good to be a fool and run behind a story like this in a faraway forest, because, its all worth it!

Much Love

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Pushpa Achanta's picture

Thought provoking

Bravo Stella and Sukanthibai. May you continue enriching others lives.

Warmth and love,
Pushpa

Stella Paul's picture

Thank you Pushpa

Thank you so much Pushpa, my beautiful editorial midwife and friend, for the nice comment!!!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

MaDube's picture

My darling Stella

I am very sorry for my belated response. I only got to read all the stories today after finishing my Chronicles Project on my blog and indeed yours did not disappoint. What a strong, brave, selfless woman and leader Sukhantibai is. If only we had more people, especially women who display the kind of leadership skills she has. We need women who bring the interests of the communities they represent forward rather than serving their own interests and just enriching themselves. I wish she could share the podium with some of our parliamentarians here, who have done nothing for the women of Zimbabwe although they have been in key decision making positions for ages. Thank you so much for bringing her amazing qualities to us and to the rest of the world.

Love,

Rumbie

Stella -
What an incredible choice of subject. Sukhantibai's story built from her act of courage in the face of a tragedy and of her continued self sacrifice for the benefit of her community is such a strong example of what leadership done right, and with so little resources, can really be. The power of leading by example and of honsety and having that be an alternative to the corruption and conflict endemic in the regions in which you live is so inspiring and moving. I appreciate the clarity of your voice and that you so strongly identify with Sukhantibai's leadership and sacrifice. I truly hope her community supports her in kind, as she clearly puts her needs second to others. Beautiful work, Stella!
Vega

Stella Paul's picture

Day well begun

Dear Vega

Here, its morning and comment has given the bestest start to my day! You know, there was a time when I wrote something and I was only focused on who read my story. Now, since I started to write about marginalized women, I am like 'how many people now know her?' So, when you take the name of Sukhantibai, I am sooooo happy! And you know, this story of Sukhantibai has indeed traveled a long way, with she getting calls from people (in India of course) telling her what a model she is. Two days back, I received an invite from her to go play Holi (the spring festival of color) - a sign of her love and affection. I love this bonding more than anything and World Pulse has indeed helped me bond so much more!

Thanks so much, for every word!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Vega Tom's picture

Dear Stella - That is so

Dear Stella -
That is so great to hear Sukhantibai's story is finding reach and resonating - and that people are calling her up! Wow! I hope you get to make it to Holi. It is clear that the bonds between women, especially women driven with a mission, really are powerful things! I hope your story and Sukhantibai's continue to inspire.
Vega

Greengirl's picture

Keep Walking Stella

In my country Nigeria, one of the Governors sees himself as the Chief Servant of the State he presides over. As I read your account of Sukhantibai, I could not help but conclude that she is a Chief Servant personified. Sukhantibai's leadership style is exceptional. She practically lives for her people, always putting their needs ahead of hers. How many leaders would/can do that? I wish leaders the World over could have a chance to read your story, seek her out, learn from her and also adopt her leadership style! Treasures are hidden where we least expect to find them!
Stella, I admire your resilience. It sure takes great courage to hit one's target in the face of glaring danger!

Olanike

Stella Paul's picture

You give me strength

Dear sister Olanike

I have missed you!!! Since that Moringa episode, I have felt really connected to you, often wondering how you have been doing. But I didn't ask you that because my own work kept me busy. But now that you are back, I am really happy. There's a way you give strength and I really appreciate that so much!

On Sukhantibai, of late, I have been trying to find out about women grass root political leaders in the conflict zone. Before Sukhantibai, I met a few other women and they were all struggling, caught between govt and rebel forces (you know the the chaos that prevails in a political conflict). But then I met Sukhantibai and I thought, well, here is the role model everyone can follow! And to think that she never had any formal training. It gives me strength too, because I can realize that if you have the will, your ability to do a job will not fail you.

I would like to hear from you stories of women leaders of Nigeria someday!

Love

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Greengirl's picture

You sure will!

You sure sought and found a worthy leader, and I am proud of you. who would not be? Also, because you asked, I will work on writing about a woman leader whom my organization is blessed to have on the Board of Trustees. I'll begin from there and be rest assured that I will dedicate the story to you!

Lots of love to you!

Olanike

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