A Rajasthan Village Trains Poor African Women To Harness Solar Energy

07/11/2015 9:34 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Open Magazine

This article is from Open Magazine.


By Sneha Bhura

It is 4 PM at the Barefoot College in Tilonia, a village in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan. A pristine white courtyard leads to a room where the large centre table is littered with an assortment of electrical bits and bobs--multimeter, nose plier, wire cutter, soldering iron, resistors, diodes, charge controller and the works. An aerial view of the table might resemble a high-tech multi-coloured world map. The middle-aged women seated around the table have come from Cambodia, Suriname, Guatemala, Namibia, Burkina Faso, Malawi, magically amplifying the imagery of a world enclosed within the four corners of a page to that of a classroom. On the blackboard facing the table, there are names of colours written in Swahili: chokuda, bulauni, chofira, orenji, yero... (black, brown, red, orange, yellow), explaining the standard colour coding in this 'Solar Workshop'.

A lean, upright and slightly frazzled Gordhan Lal, popularly known as 'Masterji', stands in front of the blackboard with his notebook and a crutch-- he was afflicted with polio as a child. He repeatedly calls out names of electrical tools and components to help his international students commit them to memory. Not all are interested to diligently repeat after Masterji, though. The soft glow of the evening sun has filtered into the classroom, casting an aura of Saturday sluggishness all around.

The class looks like it is going to be dismissed soon. Rosaline, a tall and buxom 36-year-old housewife from Namibia, looks furious. She wants to pack up for her evening repast, but is hard-pressed to express her restlessness in her native tongue, damara nama. Neither is she familiar with Hindi. Magan, a 43-year- old trainer clad in a pink bandhej saree is hovering around the table, adjusting her ghoonghat over her head. She wants Rosaline to concentrate and struggles to express her mild consternation and amusement in broken English. Rosaline, not to be admonished, retorts back, "Now my husband at home will do cooking, cleaning, washing. I sleep." Madan stares at her incredulously, "You sleep?" And pat comes Rosaline's triumphant response, "Yes, I am a solar engineer." The women around them burst out laughing.

For close to 40 years, Barefoot College-- established by Sanjit 'Bunker' Roy--has been training poor, rural communities to become self-sufficient. Illiterate and semi-literate men and women from different castes live together for short, intensive courses and train to become engineers, teachers, doctors and the like. They receive training by teachers who are themselves illiterate and poor, relying on traditional skills and village wisdom. In essence, a college made by the poor for the poor.

But the most successful Barefoot solution that has gained worldwide recognition is that of the solar electrification programme, especially the way it has electrified close to 50,000 households in 34 African countries by training 450 illiterate African women as solar engineers over the last 10 years. The unique concept has attracted funds from the Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and various other UN agencies, apart from multiple partnerships with several big-ticket NGOs. This year, Barefoot College became the first voluntary organisation in the world to forge a tie-up with Apple, to develop iPads for facilitating a smoother learning experience for solar trainees in Tilonia.

At the Third India-Africa Summit held in New Delhi in October 2015, Barefoot College has made a commitment to open Barefoot Women's Vocational Training Centers in Senegal, Liberia, Burkina Faso, South Sudan and Tanzania, similar to the one already existing in Zanzibar. Says Ruchita Beri, senior research associate at the Africa centre of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), "India is importing hydrocarbon resources from Africa in the oil and gas sector, investing in equities, etcetera. In return what is it giving back to the African countries? African countries do not want India to replicate the highly commericial experience of its other traditional partners. Barefoot College is a highly successful example of showing that India is essentially involved in capacity building and human resource development, how the country's engagement with Africa differs from China."

Bunker Roy, too, agrees that the Barefoot model of rural development is a partnership model and not a business model. And Africa has been the its toughest testing ground. "If our model can work and be owned by a community in the middle of the darkest of Africa, then this model is replicable and scalable anywhere--at the least cost. The Chinese are very envious of the Barefoot model because they can't do it. It is the only college in the world where you teach an illiterate woman to become a solar engineer in six months-- with full support from the Government of India," says Roy, emphasising the last three words with an ironic grin.

solar workshop

Rosaline (extreme left) learns how to test a circuit from a Barefoot trainer.

'Solar mamas'--as the solar trainees are lovingly referred to at the bucolic Barefoot campus, spread over 10 acres and designed in the simple, no-frills aesthetic of a self-sustainable community--is a truncated version of the phrase 'Solar grandmothers'. The idea that "Grandmothers stay and give back to their community" is the core philosophy that motivates the solar electrification programme run by the college. Over the course of six months, rural illiterate women from remote, inaccessible and non-electrified communities in Africa are familiarised with different workshop tools, components and their uses, they learn how to read the value of a resistor, install a home lighting system, test circuits and make lamps and solar lanterns apart from learning to mount a rural electronic workshop--all via sign language and constant practice in an informal, non-structured and village- based curriculum. When they go back to their native villages, they are ready to install, repair and maintain solar lighting units and even draw a small household fee from their community members.

The current batch of African solar trainees, who arrived in early September, include women from Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Malawi. The trainees have never had access to any formal education or dropped out of school at the primary level. They are all mothers of young teenage children or grandmothers who sometimes have difficulty remembering the number of grandchildren they have. Most of them have never visited a new country, even with their own families. And today they have travelled a distance of more than 3,500 miles alone on a sheer leap of faith--buoyed by the strength of their conviction that they can have a better life back home after their India stint.

Hanna, 39, comes from a village in the Free State province of South Africa and is a mother of three. Her petite frame is a bundle of exuberance and positivity and she could easily be mistaken as the spokesperson of the African contingent in Tilonia. She fought with her husband to come to India to become a solar engineer, "I knew this was good for me, this was something only I can do for myself and give my children a better life... I am happy here. I am not missing home," says Hanna. Now that she is in India, she can see the dissimilarities between her village folk and their Indian counterparts, "People back home, they are not interested in being busy. They sit all day and do nothing...When I go back, I will tell them about life in India where nobody gets anything for free, everybody is working-- even the old and the disabled."

But more than that, Hanna is amazed at the industriousness of the Indian women she sees around her who work tirelessly from morning till midnight and she knows she will never be the same person once she heads back home, "I will be the hero of my family when I go back. I will be a woman who went overseas. I went so far and when I get home, my people will hold me there... they have to!" she smiles knowingly and shows me the extent of respect she will achieve in her native village with the raised palm of her hand. Just then we hear the mellifluous notes of trainees rehearsing 'We shall overcome someday' for an India-Africa Summit event, wafting into the room from the courtyard in a rather mawkish but telling moment.

Sonia, 31, from Zimbabwe, who speaks in the shona dialect, is terribly homesick unlike Hanna. "India is okay," she responds with a vacant look on her face. In the last one month, she has learnt to appreciate the beauty of her everyday life in Africa. But she knows that once she has completes her training here, "her child can read or do his homework whenever he wants to and that her family won't have to squeeze all their work in the daytime, for the power supply is so low it's like it's not there at all, maybe 2 hours in the night." Dressed in a traditional Indian kurta with intricate thread work, Sonia is also looking forward to learn how to make recyclable sanitary pads at Barefoot--a smaller training module. "I didn't know it was this simple, that it could be handmade and used for seven to 9 months."

Rosaline decided to come all the way to India when one of the previous two solar engineers passed away in 2010 and could not set up any of the solar electric equipments badly needed for her village. "We need it for cooking, watching TV, charging our mobile phones. When you have to charge your mobile, you have to send someone far away to charge the phone and bring it back," she says. Dressed in a long white night gown, she has the air of a doting mother who is full of life but can also be extremely mercurial. She says she doesn't like to be taught in a hurry but likes the approach of her Barefoot trainers when they try to explain some complicated component of a charge controller-- "Malum or no malum (understand or not understand)," she delightfully imitates Masterji.

solar project 1

Hanna with a solar lantern.

But what is most incredible and humbling is the way rural women from the heart of Rajasthan have become an important part of a movement which is electrifying millions of households around the world. They seem to defy all our received wisdom. Magan Kaver, 36, has been training women solar engineers from different countries for the last 10 years at the Barefoot College, after she herself took the training for six months. A night school drop-out, she belongs to a deeply conservative Rajput family where "women were not even allowed to step out our house. We were tightly ensconced in our purdah."

She soon overcame resistance from her family to study at Barefoot and today the college is her family. "I left the purdah system, I have the confidence to talk to everyone and I travel with men with no inhibitions. I can work anywhere in the world now," says Magan while testing a circuit on a Sunday afternoon. A couple of months ago, she was the only woman in a team of four who had gone to Senegal to set up a Barefoot training centre. Nazma, a 50-year-old solar trainer confidently asserts, "I fix faulty circuits at night schools in villages. I travel with men and sometimes without them. I have no fear." Magan and Nazma do not have holidays on a Sunday when all the international solar trainees in the college have an off. They clean the classrooms and test circuit boards which gets despatched to the respective countries of the previous batch.

Yasmin Kidwai, who has made a widely acclaimed documentary on African women at the Barefoot College titled No Problem: 6 Months With the Barefoot Grandmamas in 2012, was initially so skeptical of the whole premise on which Barefoot's rural solar electrification programme is based that she herself went to receive a group of African trainees at the Delhi airport, so she could not miss a single moment of the action. For six months she stayed with them on campus like a fly on the wall and keenly observed all the African learners and their trainers and how they communicated with each other. It was a life-changing experience for her.

"There is no xenophobia in Tilonia. And that is the most interesting aspect. You are in Rajasthan, in a deeply patriarchal set-up in the middle of north India and then you observe how they adjust and adapt with each other at Barefoot. Even the different African countries back in the continent are at war with each other. It is so beautiful to see how one accesses the 'other' at Barefoot. It is like an oasis in the middle of the desert," exults Kidwai. She explains that this culture of tolerance comes from a place of empathy, of knowing those desperate times when there was no light or food or money for survival. That once you make an effort to interact with someone, you don't really need to know their langauge.

Bhagwat Nandan, who has a school- leaving certificate in science and is the supervisor of the solar power project at Barefoot, is the genial old 'Papa Guriji' on campus. He has visited many African countries with Bunker Roy to convince village communities to overcome their fundamental fears and allow women to train in India as solar engineers. His life is a never-ending adventure full of interesting trivia, revealing a fascinating India imprint on Africa. "Sometimes a man has three wives there. Once in Gambia, a man threatened that he would marry another woman as soon as his wife leaves for India. The woman came to India anyway. After she finished her training and went back, she was given a hero's welcome. Her husband did not remarry. Then in Sierra Leona, a group of women convinced their government on their own to get funding to set up a similar solar training centre there. When Sudan was broken was up into two countries, all the solar power equipments were destroyed and then we furnished new panels and equipments to both South Sudan and Sudan."

Guruji has a ready smile and a peculiar look of standing tall and erect even when he is sitting. He recalls another incident, "Once women in Benin failed to set up the solar power equipments. Then Barefoot solar mamas from Mauritania came down to help set it up for them." It is then that I am suddenly reminded of something Bunker Roy said in the course of our interview, "The best part of being illiterate is that you don't forget."

All images by Raul Irani have been provided by Open Magazine.

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