Impressions from Sustaining Activism’s Fire: Caring, Campaigning, Creating

Report by Andy Storey

The words of the Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslam came to mind as I listened to the contributions here today:

Participants were invited to record their expectations of the event at the start of the day
Participants were invited to record their expectations of the event at the start of the day

‘I think despair has to be earned. If you were to say to me the world is damaged beyond repair, suitable only for the rubbish heap, I would want to see a record of what you did to change things, to repair it. You are not allowed to make that statement unless you have tried a hundred times to make things better — if you have failed again and again and again I might be willing to respect your opinion. I can’t take empty complaints seriously. The fact of the matter is that if you are the kind of person who has tried to alter things a hundred times, you would still say, “Let me try one more time.” You would never give up. Only the complacent ones, the bourgeoisie, the privileged ones, would say, “Throw this thing called life onto the rubbish heap.” ‘

Abjata Khalif spoke about his campaigning work with the Kenya Pastoralist Journalist Network

I was also reminded of the words of a relative of mine who, upon hearing that I was spending much of yet another weekend doing campaigning work, asked: ‘why do you keep doing this, when it doesn’t change anything?’. Well, as we have heard here today, it does change things, sometimes at least. But even if it did not, the journey itself is often its own reward – for many of us here today this is where we enjoy being, where we feel at home. And we are here to, as Rose Kelly put it today, help find out how better to traverse that journey safe and well. We agree then with Abjata Khalif when he says that ’activism is a calling’, albeit few of us have been called to do anything that requires his courage and his ability (again using the words of Rose) to ‘live in right relation’ with his community and his environment.

Michael, Andy, Catherine
From left: Michael Ewing (IEN), Andy Storey and Catherine O’Reilly. In the “Stories and Conversations” session, Michael Ewing spoke about his experiences campaigning in Ireland and Catherine related her involvement in the anti-apartheid Dunnes Stores Strike. This session was chaired by Andy.
Art of Activism
Throughout the day a display of campaigning material was shared on the walls so that participants could reflect on other campaigns past and present

Catherine O’Reilly, when recounting her experience of the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike of the 1980s, said today that ‘I would do it again in the morning’. Thinking back on the various campaigns I have been involved in, I would also certainly do most of them again (though I might want to do some of them better), albeit none of them demanded Catherine’s fortitude – her perseverance in wearing a ‘cloak of integrity’ (another of Rose’s images). And Catherine is living proof that the struggle can be won, that a small group of people can make an enormous difference. One way to sustain our activism is to celebrate such victories, a point made also today by Molly Walsh, especially when they are victories against the odds.

The day ended with a walk on the Hill of Uisneach guided by Ruth Illingworth, who explained that, in its day, the Hill of Uisneach was at least as important as the Hill of Tara, and is associated with sovereignty.

And today we have heard much about the scale of those odds – the strength and size of the barriers that confront us. These may be internalized barriers that arise, as Michael Ewing put it today, when we become so immersed in our own issues that we can no longer work well with other people. These may be the barriers created by the attenuated nature of democracy here in Ireland, a point also emphasized by Michael. Or these may be the extreme barriers described by Abjata in Kenya – appalling state violence and other human rights abuses.

But we have all here today been inspired by the way in which Abjata drew his own inspiration from even those dire circumstances and found ways to defuse conflict through simple communication techniques and resource sharing arrangements. Abjata talked of the usage of solar lamps in northern Kenya, a practical tool to boost health, education and human development in general. But the lamp also has symbolic value (akin, perhaps, to Tolkein’s Light of Arundel, as invoked by Rose) – it is a symbol of hope, sustainability and solidarity. Today we also planted a tree and that is likewise both a practical step and a symbolic action, symbolizing life, commitment and the leap of faith that is always necessary to stave off a despair that may be ever-looming but is never earned.

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