I wonder how ‘5-star activists’ are defined, but I guess I am one of them. And here is a glimpse of my activist life, and some riches I gathered along the way.
In the forests of Sathyamangalam three decades ago, fellow activists and I organised villagers and trained them to save, lend, keep accounts, and protect their land and crops. My colleagues were my friends, romance was motorbike rides on moonlit roads, socialising was late evening village meetings (the only time villagers were free). I lived in quarters with doors and windows that refused to shut tight. We worried about sandalwood smugglers, elephants and wild boar attacks, but the fear that kept me awake at night was that my baby daughter would get stung by a scorpion or bitten by a snake. She thrived, but more than two years later, I lost my second baby. I was eight months pregnant and the only nurse in the area was not equipped to detect what was happening inside my womb. I continued working. In those forests, career success was measured by the gains in confidence of villagers seeking their rights.
Veena with her daughter in forests of South India, in 1990.
Activists love to travel. So years later, I went to Cambodia, as the country recovered from the ravages of the Khmer Rouge period. I travelled on rivers and muddy roads across the country, working with small local organisations. We tried to rebuild decimated skills and strengthen a nascent civil society. I listened to stories of mind-numbing brutality. I huddled with colleagues who wept during staff meetings as they recalled their past. I never met a single person who had not suffered a senseless loss. We worked with villagers who had regrouped only to face impoverishment from the new threats of logging companies and fishing trawlers in cahoots with corrupt officials. We tried to reduce despair and give hope to families losing their livelihoods.
In 2000, Veena Krishnamurthy travelled to Cambodia to work with local organisations.
I had my adventures. One afternoon, returning from a field trip with a colleague on a decrepit motorboat on the mighty Mekong, I lived through what felt like the last minutes of my life. A torrential downpour killed our engine, blinded us and nearly overturned our boat into the swirling waters. The hapless boatman gave up all pretence of saving us. We did not have life jackets. But the storm passed, the engine miraculously came back to life, we reached the distant bank, and my colleague and I hugged each other in mute relief.
I worked in Malawi for a few years when the country was in the grip of a drought. There I regularly met young mothers who walked miles to reach our treatment centres, to save their tiny babies from severe acute malnutrition. Most babies survived and we celebrated each survival. But many died. The mothers often remained blank-faced, so used to suffering they were, but I once hid behind a door and wept, overwhelmed by grief.
In Kenya, I met young school girls sheltered and educated by fellow 5-star activists. The girls had run away from home because their parents had put them through the horror of FGM in preparation for early forced marriages. I wore bead necklaces and danced with Maasai women, celebrating their newfound freedom from domestic violence. They too became activists, helping others to say no to violence in their homes.
Now in Bangalore, I have joined another group of 5-star activists who dare to dream of protecting our precious forests from the clutches of those eyeing its riches. We dream of clean air, water and soil, of safe food. Our only mission is to convince our 6-star politicians and their 7-star corporate friends that this country can grow and develop without robbing the poor to fill the coffers of the rich, without destroying our forests or poisoning the air we breathe.
5-star activists are a motley bunch – all ages, hues, languages and creeds. We join hands with those who share our dream. Our story is national and global. There is no such thing as us and the foreign hand. Our hearts beat in unity for the earth’s resources and for those who depend on them to survive. Our voice needs to be heard, not stifled.
Veena Krishnamurthy is International Funding Manager at Greenpeace India
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