Exploring Women’s Water-Based Literacies through Alternative Storytelling with 20 Indigenous Women from Sikkim and West Bengal
“Years ago, at the time of my grandmother, all the rivers were clear and good. But when I grew up and went to school, there was a landslide in 2016 and the suspension bridge broke. There was no means to travel to school. This is a type of problem for the village people.”
Translated from the original Lepcha, this is an excerpt from a story written by Kipu Lepcha, one of the participants at the Visualizing Our Water and River Relations Workshop for Women. Kipu’s story, along with other stories written by women in the workshop, highlight the importance water and rivers play in various facets of life, ranging from daily chores, to the religious and cultural significance of rivers for indigenous peoples, to the necessity of water to grow crops, and more.
Kipu Lepcha and her story about the Rongyong River in Dzongu and the landslide of 2016
Kipu presenting her story with photos of the suspension bridge and the effects of the 2016 landslide in the background
The Visualizing Our Water and River Relations Workshop for Women took place May 10th and 11th at the Centre for Mountain Dynamics in Pudung, near Kalimpong, and was attended by 20 Indigenous women of the Lepcha and Rabha communities from the remote river valley in Sikkim as well as villages in West Bengal. The women who participated in the workshop were students, farmers, housewives, teachers, as well as forest and river activists. The goal of the workshop was to engage with women about their relationships to and interactions with water and rivers in their daily lives.
Based loosely on a concept known as photovoice, which pairs written narrative with photos, the workshop was organized as a way to amplify women’s voices regarding their lived experiences and knowledge about water and rivers, and to (as the name of the workshop suggests) visualize these experiences and knowledge through written narrative, expressive drawings, and photography. From this, the workshop imparts visual rhetorical as well as narrative composition skills, and explores the various ways story and image can be shared on various online platforms, such as social media, to express personal thoughts, experiences, and knowledge, as well as to mobilize this information in an engaging way.
Another aim of the workshop was to convey the idea that as we move through our day-to-day lives, we develop knowledge of our place, otherwise known as place-based literacies, that can reveal how our place is changing or staying the same, as well as how our lives are impacted by the places we live and move through. Focusing specifically on water and rivers, the participants explored their water and river-based literacies, and then articulated these literacies through story and image.
Mayalmit Lepcha, a participant in the workshop who also helped to organize, facilitate, and act as a translator, composed a story that highlighted the sacredness of rivers of Dzongu, Sikkim, specifically the Rongyoung and Teesta, and the importance of rivers to Indigenous Lepcha peoples. Her story connected the broad importance of rivers like the Rongyoung and Teesta to her own childhood, as well as to the negative impact she has felt and seen from the construction of dams along the Teesta. She writes:
“When I was a little child I used to go swimming every day during my summer and winter vacation with my father and two elder brothers. My father always tried to tell us that the government is planning a power project in our region which turned out to be very true and today we have more than six mega dams in the region. In that moment it struck in my young mind that our holy rivers are in danger. It’s been almost fifteen years, I have been working tirelessly against the big dams and trying to save Rivers and freshwater, my young mind is convinced by my father that these dams are danger to Indigenous Lepcha of Dzongu.”
She ends her story with handwritten bolded letters, showing she must have traced over the lines three or four times, proclaiming, “Save Teesta River and SAVE DZONGU the Holy land of Indigenous Lepchas of Sikkim.” Behind her words is a drawing of the Teesta river flowing from between four mountains, with an orange sun hanging low in the sky. As the river comes out from between the mountains, the Teesta is colored bright blue. Mayalmit also marks the five dams along the Teesta in dark red pencil, and a sixth that is proposed to be built with red stripes. After each dam along the river, the bright blue of the Teesta is replaced with grayer and greyer water, until only a little of the blue pencil shows through. Along the sides of the river are small homes marking settlements where Lepcha and other communities live along the Teesta, and at the bottom of the river are four fish of different colors.
The symbolism in the drawing of the increasingly grey water after the dams and the markers of life (homes, trees, fish, the river itself) reveal the destructive impact of the dams in Mayalmit’s eyes. Paired with the intensity in her words, the drawing helps further reveal the decreasing vibrancy of life Mayalmit sees occurring because of the dams. During Mayalmit’s presentation, she also chose to show a map of Dzongu’s ecotourism, which she feels is a way for the Lepcha people to empower themselves against the temptation to sell their land and farms to those affiliated with the construction of dams. She also displayed a picture of the Teesta flowing heavily, and conveyed that she wants to save the free flowing Teesta for Dzongu and the Lepcha. The combination of narrative, drawing, and photos make her story more visceral, and more capable to convey what Mayalmit sees, thinks, and feels. The multimedia of this story enable it to act as a conveyer of thought and emotion, sent directly from the mind of the storyteller, more fully than only one medium would allow. Mayalmit’s story, like Kipu’s, presents the personal, physical, spiritual, and emotional connection she has to place and to rivers. Kipu and Mayalmit’s stories both illustrate what was created during the two-day workshop on visualizing our water and river relations. The journey to these final products is also an important element of their creation.
Mayalmit Lepcha proudly holding her story, “Dzongu—Rivers for Life”
Mayalmit presenting her story, along with photos of the Dzongu Ecotourism Map and a the Teesta River
On the first day of the workshop, we spent a lot of time getting to know one another and discussing elements of story writing and ways to compose and connect visual symbolism (in drawings and photos) to writing. The topics discussed on day one of the two-day workshop could have been expanded into a semester long course, which packed into one day, needless to say, was a lot to take in. Most of the participants had never met each other before, had travelled from as far as 6 hours away the night prior, and many, I’m sure, were wondering what visualizing our water and river relations really meant.
The women therefore were, understandably, a bit hesitant in volunteering to talk during the introductory “ice-breakers,” which asked the women to tell us their name, where they were from, something unique about themselves, and “If you could be one form of water what would it be?” (Several women described themselves as rivers, referencing the ones that were near their childhood or adult homes, while others said they were waterfalls, streams, or the falling rain.) To contextualize their initial hesitance further, it is important to note that among the 20 participants, most of the women’s first languages were Lepcha, Hindi, or Nepali. While all were educated in English, we noticed that to truly share their feelings about water and rivers, their mother tongue was preferred and we welcomed that. Despite these language barriers, and initial first day jitters, the women thoughtfully engaged in the workshop, composed moving narratives that were bolstered by their personal drawing and photos, and participated in building a community around storytelling.
One such way the women expressed a community centered around story happened on day two of the workshop. Throughout the first day of the workshop, many of the women had been singing to themselves, in pairs, or quietly humming. This prompted Ayesha (who works with International Rivers in their South Asia Programme), to gather up the women to take an energizing break focused on singing and dancing. Women from the Lepcha community played traditional songs and danced along to the lyrics, and then one of the women from the Rabha tribe offered a traditional dance while the other participants clapped along in support. By the end of the jubilation, we were all laughing and swaying our bodies to the music. We then discussed how these songs are stories that pass down cultural traditions and knowledge, and how the stories they create in the workshop are doing similar work, only through different media. In similar ways, the singing and dancing expressed by the participants illustrates an embodied way of knowing and expressing culture. In other words, certain knowledge about tradition and Lepcha or Rabha ways of life are held and communicated through the body, as well as through words. In similar ways, the workshop to visualize water and river relations also rests on the principle that we contain certain knowledge and experiences that are derived from our connection (or disconnection) to place. After the dancing and singing circle, the women transferred this embodied energy into adding the finishing touches to their stories, and then presenting their work to each other.
Singing and dancing together
The women composed and presented stories on a variety of topics ranging from the degradation of their homeland, as Mayalmit and Kipu did, to topics of health, childhood memories, relationships to mothers, family, and to the self, farming, and calls to action to protect water quality, river conditions, and the forests. Many stories included some variation of the phrase “water is life,” and all included this sentiment in one form or another, with “life” meaning all elements of life, from biological, to familial, to cultural and religious.
The stories were given further dimension by each woman’s unique depiction of her story conveyed through integrating drawing as well as photos. None of the women were trained illustrators or painters, and their stories and creations were not held to some preconceived standard of what is or is not “good.” Rather, the personal connection and emotion within the story is what was both valued and amplified through the women’s drawn and photographed visualizations of their story. The visual element of combing a written narrative with a poster and one to four photos allowed viewers a special window into the mind’s eye of the storyteller. It helped us to see and feel more of what was seen and felt by the woman telling the story.
Nalimit Lepcha wrote a story about the history of her (large) families organic farm and the hard work each member did to contribute to the success of the farm, which was even further enriched by her poster. The poster she created depicted small cut outs of members of her family plowing a hand-drawn field. She also included photos of her eleven-person family all lined up in a row and smiling, her farm, and her father receiving an award for the farm’s success.
Another story, written by Mumtaj Rabha, describes the importance the interconnectedness of protecting the forests and the water of her home in northern West Bengal. She describes the Forest Rights Act of 2006 and how she feels the forest villagers’ rights are not acknowledged or recognized by the government through describing,
“People of the forest lived in the forest from the beginning. At that time the forest was theirs, they grew any crops in the jungle and they could roam and bring anything that they wanted from the forest. They could also go to the river. After the forest department came they stopped all these, they treated villagers very badly, they led the villagers to clear the forest, led villagers to plant the trees without any payment…We are fighting not only for forests but also we are fighting for land and water.”
She ends her story by explaining that as a woman of the forest, she feels it is her responsibility to lead other women in the goal of protecting the forest, land, and water of their area. The poster she created lays out a scene of mountains with the sun rising over their crest, a few trees, a butterfly and some flowers, and a river running from the mountains to the forest. She has drawn a house with a fence drawn around it, and at the bottom of her post, a simple red outline of a heart.
The stories, drawings, and photos from Nalimit’s and Mumtaj’s stories, along with each and every other woman who participated in the workshop, creates an opportunity to learn from their knowledge of a place of significance to them, and the ways water and river quality directly impact their livelihood, their families, communities, as well as the water, rivers, and forests.
Nalimit Lepcha and her story, “Importance of Water in Farming”
Nalimit presenting her photos of her family, her farm, and her father receiving an award for the farm
Mamtaj Rabha and her story, “Forest Villagers’ Rights”
Mamtaj presenting her story and sharing photos of meetings with forest rights activists in her area
Though these are only four examples of the stories created within the workshop, each one underscores that women’s voices regarding water and river related issues, perhaps especially related to water management, policy, and infrastructure decisions, should be consulted. One takeaway from this workshop, alongside the feelings of accomplishment most women expressed after presenting their stories, is the fact that stories like these deserve a place at the table with those making decisions regarding water and river use. Stories paired with drawings and photos share a local knowledge and convey the direct impact various water management and policy decisions have on individuals’ lives. Especially when we consider that women’s voices often go unheard, these stories reach out in a way that goes beyond the facts of the matter and gets to the heart of it. Because, as many of the women in the workshop expressed, water is life and it flows into and through our lives in biological, familial, social, cultural, and religious streams. And these streams hold stories; ones that we need to listen to.
The participants proudly displaying their posters
The participants and facilitators of the Visualizing Our Water and River Relations Workshop for Women
Jordan P. Woodward is a Fulbright-Nehru researcher for the 2017-2018 year. This workshop is part of a one-year study of the relationship between water and womanhood in India through digital and alternative storytelling practices. Find her work at jordanpaigewoodward.oucreate.com.