Linking Rural Women Globally: The Barefoot Way
By Yoginder Sikand
16 February, 2013
Some three dozen women from almost a dozen 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 to communicate in, coming as they do from countries as diverse as Vanuatu, 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 of 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’, the Barefoot College has for several years now been actively involved in promoting solar energy technology in various poverty-stricken countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific. Starting in 2004, every year a batch of thirty-odd women from countries in these regions are selected to attend a six month course in basic solar energy technology at 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, some 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 also serve as a means for women’s empowerment. It was also felt that while if men did the course, they might return to their countries and use their newly-acquired skills to make money for themselves, women were more likely to stay on in their villages and work for their communities instead of just for themselves.
Typically, participants in the course women are middle-aged, 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. Says Bhagwat Nandan, in-charge of the programme, ‘Several of them had never visited the capital cities of their countries before flying out to India. 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, the people, the language, the food, the climate—everything is new for them. But, in a while they not just adjust but also enjoy themselves. Says Bukaewe, mother of six from Nauru, ‘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!’ Adds her compatriot Jaylyn, grandmother of two, ‘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.’
Learning how to assemble and repair solar-power circuits, lights and lamps isn’t at all easy, especially since many of the women are completely illiterate and have no prior technical knowledge. 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 has 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. To solve the problem, says Leela Devi, who has studied till the third grade and has been a solar technology instructor for the last ten years, the 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. There, 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 receives a solar light or lantern pays the village committee a small sum every month, and part of the collection also goes to the women.
‘The course isn’t only about solar energy,’ Bhagwat Nandan explains. ‘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 the Barefoot College—such as 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.
Says Phester, mother of four from the Solomon Islands, ‘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 College who are physically challenged. Yet, they work, and are paid for it. That wouldn’t happen in my country. That’s one of the many good things I’ve learnt here.’
‘When they return to their villages,’ Bhagwat Nandan says, ‘these women are often treated with additional respect because of the exposure to, and knowledge of, the outside world that the course provides them. They begin to play a greater role in the affairs of their community. They can use the knowledge that they receive in Tilonia, not only about solar energy but other things related to development and life in general, too, to bring about positive changes in their villages. By providing fellow villagers with a valued service, they help empower women, inspiring other women in their villages to develop confidence and stand on their own feet.’
Yoginder Sikand is bangalore based writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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