Writes Yoginder sikand…
Some three dozen women from a number of countries sit together in a large hall, soldering components onto electronic circuit panels and fitting switches into boards, gossiping and laughing as they work. They have no common language and come from countries as diverse asVanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Nauru and Samoa in the Pacific; Peru and El Salvador in Latin America; and Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, South Sudan and Benin in Africa. But, these women will live together for six months in a small village in Rajasthan, and if you see the way they interact among themselves; their Rajasthani instructors and the village folk who live in the vicinity in broken English, a smattering of Marwari and Hindi, sign language and much laughter — you might think they’ve long been the best of friends.
These women have come together under a unique programme conceived by the Barefoot College, a development organization based in Tilonia, a small village in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district. Considered to be a pioneer in promoting solar energy in various parts of rural India through village people instead of formally-educated, certificate-wielding ‘experts’, Barefoot College has for several years now been actively involved in promoting solar energy technology in various poverty-stricken countries. Having started in 2004, every year a batch of thirty odd women from different countries are selected to attend a six month course in basic solar energy technology in Tilonia. From 2008 onwards, the scheme has been partly funded under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. So far, 200 women from almost fifty countries have completed the course.
Partner NGOs in various countries select women who live in remote villages to undergo the course. Initially, the course was open to both men and women, but later it was restricted only to women so that it could serve as a means for women’s empowerment. It was also felt that if men did the course, they might return to their countries to make money, while women were more likely to stay in their villages and work for development of their communities.
Typically, participants in the course are middle-aged women, some of them grandmothers from impoverished families. Most work as homemakers, though some also run small home-based businesses. Many of them are completely illiterate. Bhagwat Nandan, in-charge of the programme said, ‘Several of them had never visited the capital cities of their countries before flying out toIndia. Of course, most of them had never flown in a plane before coming here.’
The first month or so in Tilonia is a great challenge for the women. The culture, people, language, food, climate is new for them. But, in a small time they have adjusted themselves. Bukaewe, mother of six from Nauru says, ‘The people at the Barefoot College are very friendly. We women from different countries live here like sisters, members of a large family. We do not speak each other’s languages, but that doesn’t come in the way of us joking and playing Bingo and volleyball and having fun in our free time!’ Her compatriot Jaylyn, grandmother of two adds, ‘It’s good to be here, though I miss home, too. Some months ago I became a grandmother again and named my granddaughter “Tilonia”! I have learnt much after coming here.’
The ten course instructors, four women and six men are village folks from Tilonia and nearby villages. Some of them are illiterate and none of them have studied beyond middle school. They have no degree in solar energy technology, having picked up their skills through years of practice. These ‘barefoot solar engineers’, as they are called, are experts in their field.
The instructors don’t speak any language that the women can understand. This makes teaching the women an even more daunting task. Leela Devi, who has studied till the third grade and has been a solar technology instructor for the last ten years said that to solve the problem, Barefoot College has devised an ingenious method of using various colour codes to denote key words in the various languages these women speak, as well as a teaching manual based mainly on illustrations.
During the course, the women assemble several dozen solar power circuits, chargers, fixed units and lamps, which are then shipped to their villages when they return home. These are distributed to families through local NGOs. Once they are back in their villages, the women supplement their family’s incomes by running home-based workshops to repair the lamps and fixed units that they have helped install. Each family who receive a solar light or lantern pay the village committee a small sum every month, and part of the collection goes to the women.
‘The course isn’t only about solar energy,’ Bhagwat Nandan explains. He remarks, ‘Coming all the way from their homes, thousands of miles away, and living in a completely different environment is an empowering experience for the women.’ They are exposed to new ways of life, often being for the first time on their own without their families. That in itself is a major confidence-booster. In their free time, the women can also participate in various other activities of Barefoot College such as the women’s groups, a village-based development communications team, rainwater harvesting activities, and efforts to improve the economic conditions of rural people using local resources, producing goods like handicrafts, bags and toys.
Phester, mother of four from theSolomon Islands said, ‘I’ve learnt so much here over the past few months. At the Barefoot College, I’ve seen how meaningful change can be brought about through local initiatives. There are many people at the Barefoot Collegewho are physically challenged. Yet, they work, and are paid for it. That wouldn’t happen in my country. That is one of the many good things I have learnt here.’
Bhagwan Nanda said that upon returning to the village, these women are often treated with additional respect because of the exposure and knowledge of the outside world. By providing fellow villagers with a valued service, they help inspire other women in their villages to develop confidence and stand on their own feet.