From a Climate Refugee to a Climate Journalist: My Untold Story

Stella Paul
Posted February 25, 2021 from India
Me by river Manu - a transboundary river that flows through my homeland all the way to Bangladesh

People say, a cat has nine lives. What I believe is that we women live ninety lives, if not more. In each life, we endure a lot but also come right up as winners. Here's a story of a life I lived once. It's also the life that has shaped me and my entire being the most. Sharing that with you here - my true sisterhood.

I grew up in Manu valley – one of the most picturesque places in northeast India. From our courtyard you could see the blue mounds of the Langtarai and Sakhantang hills on the horizon and lovely green rice paddy fields stretching all the way to Bangladesh. Yet, when I close my eyes and think back to that time, the first image that I see is this: Me and my three siblings squatting on a wooden bed in a flooded mud house; my mother trying to cook us a meal on a kerosene stove. I also hear the terrifying roar of the Manu River with the occasional collapsing sound of a house caving in.

These images were part of my reality for at least 12 years. Every monsoon, our village flooded, and we would live for a couple of days in the waist-high water before taking shelter in a nearby school building.

When the schools reopened, the teacher would tell us that the Manu River flooded because there was a lot of logging in the hills and that made the rainwater rush downstream with doubled force. Sometimes he would also say that the government built an embankment to ease the flooding, but the floodwater gates were not manned properly. What I never heard, however, was that none of these disasters were supposed to happen in the first place.

So just like everyone else, I grew up prepared to be homeless for a few weeks every year and then rebuild our mud house that had collapsed because of the high waters. 

The first time I heard someone tell a story about disasters and environmental challenges was when I was in 10th grade.  Mela Singh, an indigenous village playwright cum comedian, put on a play about living by the river where he described how villagers reacted when the floodwater entered their homes.

Men would make rafts out of banana trees and fish in their yards while the women would search under the water for the tube well – the only source of clean water -- and also a safe place to relieve themselves. Singh poked fun at the flood aid, like how bad the baby food packets smelled, and he would dance, change into female costumes and use slapstick comedy that made the whole village laugh with him.

This type of storytelling birthed in me the idea of becoming a climate journalist. It was also then that I first started to look at disasters through a woman’s eye, trying to understand the pain behind the comedy of finding a toilet in a flooded village.

 

The neighborhood I lived in had a remittance economy, meaning most of the men worked outside of the state and sent money back to their families. It also meant, when the floods came, that women were on their own in dealing with it -- from evacuating and finding safe shelter to finding food and clean water.

When I first started reporting about women on the frontlines of climate change, memories of my mother carrying us on her shoulder across the flooded village was what came to my mind. That image made me shift my focus from describing women as mere victims to women who are resilient, successful climate warriors. 

In 2011, on a reporting grant from EJN, I went to cover the UN climate change talks, known as COP17, in Durban. There I met Sibongile, a radio journalist from Malawi. One afternoon I joined Sibongile and a group of other young African journalists for a story-sharing session with KwaZulu Natal University. When it came to her turn, Sibongle said: "The river in our village has dried. My family has lost its crops and most of the goats. My cousin’s marriage was cancelled because her fathers’ goats died too. But nobody in our village knows ‘climate change.’ Everyone thinks it’s our bad luck.”

Her words struck me hard as I realized she was actually describing my own community, where everything was accepted as destiny. The realization helped me decide to focus on what I had not done up to that point: Speak with them and understand what really made them accept it. Was it because they didn’t have enough information? Maybe they understood it and had questions but were never given a chance to raise their voices. These questions have driven my reporting ever since, as I try to look at a vulnerable community as an unheard group of people and each story as a unique opportunity to make their voices heard.

Earlier this month, I joined Earth Journalism Network of Internews to manage environment and health projects and mentor indigenous journalists and I feel I have come a full circle. This is the organization that gave me my first break as a climate journalist and helped me connect with climate storytellers from around the world. Now, I can support these storytellers by training them and giving them the resources that they need to reach the unheard people, especially women who live the environmental challenges I once did.

And, finally, I can also guide and mentor them to not only ask questions but also share with the world the solutions devised by these communities, especially the women community leaders.

 

Comments 19

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Andrace
Feb 25
Feb 25

Wow! Good job, Stella. I enjoyed reading every line. I just realised that women are actually at the forefront of climate change. I think we feel the effect more and can actually lead the change story from a better point of view. We all should shove up to being “resilient, successful climate warriors.”

Thank you for the great job, Stella. ‘Proud of you!

Love and hugs,

E. J.

Stella Paul
Feb 25
Feb 25

Thank you my super encourager sister for reading through! I feel we now have more power to fight any challenges because we have this added strength of fighting it collectively.
Much love

OGA PRECIOUS
Feb 26
Feb 26

Hi Stella! Am glad you took this steps to better the lives of women and find solution to handling climate change. You are strong and courageous, keep educating women.
Hug
Precious

Stella Paul
Mar 31
Mar 31

Hugs right back to you sister Precious! I am strong because you are! Love

Dawn Arteaga
Feb 26
Feb 26

Congratulations Stella!! What a beautiful story about your journey. You are contributing so much. I'm so grateful Internews has you on their team. It gives me hope for my children's future on this beautiful planet.

Stella Paul
Mar 01
Mar 01

Grateful for your support, dear Dawn! Behind the battle and win of one woman there is always a kind woman with a beautiful heart and I can testify to that with pride. Big hugs!

Nini Mappo
Mar 01
Mar 01

Dear Stella,
Yours is such a heartwarming and enlightening story to read! The descriptions of your childhood in your flooded home against the picture of you with river Man as calm as a cucumber in the background is like two worlds apart, and serves to emphasize the effects of climate change and erratic climate conditions. It is good to hear that you have harnessed your challenging childhood experiences for the good of educating others on climate change/justice.
Congratulations for all the opportunities you've had to do what you love and collaborate with others in the same field. And thank you, for educating us too.

Stella Paul
Mar 01
Mar 01

Thank you Nini. Its painful to go back to those days, especially because so many women and girls are still living these nightmares that I was lucky to escape at some points. But seeing the love here helps overcome that pain. Climate change hits women disproportionately and we have a responsibility to highlight that whichever way we can.
Lots of love

Stacie Dickson
Mar 01
Mar 01

Stella, you are so beautiful (inside and out) , You inspire me!

Stella Paul
Mar 31
Mar 31

Coming from a beautiful and kind one like you, I will take that as a great compliment, my sis. Keep smiling!

Hello, dear Stella,

Wow, congratulations on this new milestone, dear! My heart is leaping with joy, especially that you are mentoring indigenous journalists. Yes, life indeed comes in a full circle. I am so proud of you. Thank you for sharing this journey with us. Giving you virtual hugs coz I miss the physical hugs we had!

Stella Paul
Mar 31
Mar 31

I don't know how to apologize for being this late to respond! But well, with someone as sweet and kind as you, even the stupidest one can expect some love :) So, sorry sis, please don't turn away your love. Now, coming to the story, yes dear, God has finally found me an opportunity to deeply engage with all things indigenous. In fact I am judging some story proposals right now, hopefully I can help tell the most pressing stories that the world must hear. And every other day I open my cupboard and look at the most beautiful indigenous dress I ever received as a gift - that Malong from my sister Karen! I love you so much! Big hugs!

Tash Blackman
Mar 02
Mar 02

The scene setting of your story took me as much to the riverbanks in North East India as it did to the dry arid river beds in Malawi. Thanks for sharing your story and becoming a changemaker for future women and our voices.

Stella Paul
Mar 31
Mar 31

One day, when the air is Corona-free and barriers have bene lifted, I invite you to visit me in India, my sister. I can take you to the river that flows through the hills. Maybe have some freshly brewed tea from the tea gardens that dot the river banks as well. Until then, lets stay connected. Sending you love

vasanti.m
Mar 03
Mar 03

Stella, unfortunately northeastern India has been neglected by the rest of India. It is very heartening to see that you have decided to take matters in your own hands and do something about it. Your story is very uplifting! Thank you!

Stella Paul
Mar 31
Mar 31

Thank you dear Vasanti! When a shout out as lovely and thoughtful as this comes, it sends a wave of strength and energy. Sending you love and looking forward to connecting and sharing more in the future!
Stella

Adora3114
Mar 09
Mar 09

Wow.
This is so amazing,heart warming and encouraging. You're indeed a blessed spirit.

Stella Paul
Mar 31
Mar 31

Thanks dear sis. When sisters understand and confine into each other, the world becomes a better place! Love