Barefoot College + Off-the-grid solar energy in Tilonia, Rajasthan
January 28 – February 1. My main motivation to go to Jaipur was the opportunity to visit the Barefoot College. I am so grateful that my Bangalore fellow-Fulbrighter, Sammi Bennett mentioned her planned visit and I was able to join her! Her research is sustainability and woman’s empowerment – so we share many interests. I knew of Barefoot College and their rural solar initiatives from documentaries and TED Talk – but had no contact there. It is a 2-hour taxi ride from Jaipur (yes, we got lost – only a little) – and the days there were an experience hard to put into words [note to myself – not true, once I got into writing it got even a bit long].
Why ‘Barefoot’? Because the founder, Bunker Roy wanted to honor the skills and potential of the illiterate or poor. He found so much knowledge that was just not ‘recognized’ by academic credentials but should be passed on to educate each other without restrictions of literacy or diplomas. He wanted the illiterate to be able to learn without the academic entry blocks of traditional academies. They do not need to know Hindi or English (India has over 22 languages and many more dialects). They work with images, puppetry, hands-on demonstration and basic translations. His project grew from a small experiment in the 1960-ies to 2 campuses with 300 staff + volunteers in Tilonia – a network of connected NGOs and satellite campuses in Africa. The main project is teaching women to build and maintain small solar systems to bring electricity to their villages, empower them and have them teach others.
Arriving on the ‘new’ campus we signed in at ‘the office’, a former repurposed phone booth, a small geodesic ‘Buckminster Fuller’ structure – a plaster igloo in the desert. Now we were set for dorm and food. Our 3rd roommate was Annu, a recent graduate in social work from Delhi who just started working here. We three spent long evening hours comparing school systems and politics – and age groups. They are young + me… well, at heart.
The afternoon started in the ‘stage’ with an introduction to puppetry used for education in this multi-lingual environment. The stage team builds their own puppets from paper mâché and rags. They transition from known moral myths to today’s moral stories of villagers’ lives – their problems, injustices, savvy solutions. The director of the puppet studio recalled that in one village he was chased off the stage as an untouchable Dalit. But Bunker Roy did not allow caste discrimination and had him continue the performances. The Barefoot College principle to challenge a person with new tasks got him moved to Radio for a while. The tall tower broadcasts to villages in a small radius.
Barefoot College Night School for working children
In the evening we joined a visiting class of design students from Delhi to see the night school. Well, we had NO IDEA. This was a 50 km bus ride into the middle of nowhere, and we stopped at a lone 1-story building next to a farm and a water pump. (An excursion: I hope some of my NYU colleagues or students read this. We also have night classes to accommodate students who work during the day. But this is where the similarities end. Read on.)
We entered a semi dark room where 15 students and a teacher sat in a square on rag carpets, a small blackboard leaned on the wall with a math question: 5+3=? – This was first grade and today kids continued learning the Hindu alphabet. The teacher showed us a projector they had just received, and next month students will be introduced to tablets (probably from Microsoft, one of the donors). The projector interface had candy-colored US-culture based icons. How will that relate to the children here? For now, they had a small text booklet to draw, trace letters and color in images.
Now have a look at the photos.
Why are these kids in school from 5-8pm? – They herd cattle, work in the fields or at home all day. This program gives them a chance to learn when that work is done – and they seem very attentive – not as tired, as I would expect.
I noticed a considerable age range from about 6-15 years. How hard to start at 15 but all seemed to be glad to be given this chance since many did not have the opportunity or permission from parents or in-laws earlier (Yes, some are already married – the law against child marriage frequently gets ignored in villages). The kids have to be able to get home when it is dark. And walks can be long and lonely. Many girls were picked up by brothers or husbands at the end.
I spent much time with these two girls: Mansu, on the left is 15 and is quick to do the math and has a sure hand in her lettering. She is not as shy as her friend Natni, who is 5 years younger. They both wrote their name and age for me: pandera (15) and das (10). Then we wrote a Hindi version of my name. All visitors had also mixed with other children and in an hour all went from shy to very lively – selfies and all.
I was wondering what life they had during the day, what dreams they have for their future. Without a translator our communication relied on simple pointing, drawing, gesturing. One Delhi student translated a question to the young bride “How many children do you want to have?”. She blushed and said she does not want to think about it. And she is homesick for her parent’s village. I hope for her that at least her 21-year old husband is open to letting his wife be part of these decisions.
When their academic competency catches up with their peers, they can switch to a regular government school and expect some support. Given their many chores, this will be a hard task for most students. In rural Rajasthan literacy rates are around 76% for boys, but only 42% for girls. But with incredible determination and endurance quite a few semi-literate villagers grew into savvy micro-entrepreneurs with the encouragement and training at Barefoot College and other likeminded NGOs.
Barefoot Enrich + Solar programs
The next day brings Sammi and me to the old campus, a 10-minute walk (once we found the shortcut along a field). That also avoided the long stares by men sitting at the village square – following us two blond women walking.
We were about to see the final presentations of 28 women from across northern India who just had spent 3 months in the ENRICHE program.
While Barefoot College is known for teaching rural women to become ‘solar engineers’ who can build and repair solar lights, this entrepreneurial program is holistic and starts by educating women about their rights, hygiene, adding business skills like budgeting and talking in public. The mood ranged from proud and exuberant to sad and tearful – at the thought of leaving (as we found out later). Each of the women received a smart phone, to connect them with each other and help run their new business. They had learned to record video, photos, use social media and websites.
After the main presentations – some proud and self-assured, some timid, some with trepidation at loosing this intermittent independence – we had the chance for a half hour interview with six of the women. I was wondering how the women can maintain their momentum, their new-found self-assurance and skills when alone and faced with their many chores or resistance at home. The encouraging message was that all of them had support from their community or family (but not always both). They came from villages without electricity, or with dependence on expensive kerosene – and the community wanted the women to bring electricity to their homes. Since Barefoot does not teach men, they have to let women go if they want electrification (more on that on the next page, the interview with Guru Ji). Barefoot works with local NGOs that help choose the women and work with them when they return and receive a shipment of solar lights to sell. A sales provision gets them some financial independence. They may also start other businesses. For some this was the first time away from their village, or the first time they took a train and definitely the first time they could focus on their own education. That explained the tears. One woman started to sing in Hindi – I knew the melody “We shall overcome” and all joined in – please watch!
In the afternoon we continued to see the other class, the Solar Mamas, 52 women from 11 countries: from Paraguay to Thailand, from Syria to Botswana. They had spent 5 months to learn, build, solder, test and install solar panels and lights. Through their respective NGOs at home they will install and maintain up to 50 sets. Each photo-voltaic set generates enough electricity for basic household needs like light, radio, fridge or tv. They were a lively group across so many cultures. My Spanish was very rusty but Sammi spoke at length with the South American women.
In 2 days, on January 31 they will prepare a final bazaar with self-made craft and food, testing their selling skills.
Their project is done, and we follow some of them to the roof to test the solar panels. Yes, they worked!
IMPORTANT note: ALL roofs and some fields have solar panels. Barefoot is completely off the grid. All electricity, cooking, hot water is generated by solar.
At the end of the afternoon we stop by the solar office to say hi to US-American coordinator Kathleen who was Sammi’s contact to arrange our stay. Next we see the cooker workshop. Solar cookers have multiple benefits: They free up the time women spend gathering wood – and keep them from denuding the landscape, which in turn leads to soil erosion and lower groundwater levels. In addition, they reduce lung problems from smoke exposure in poorly ventilated kitchens.
Norati Devi is a middle-aged Indian women, solar cooker engineer and metal worker. She explains the three models they build and sell. Measurements for the steel skeleton are painted on the floor and that pattern is used for marking the steel. The top model includes a clock mechanism that turns the large parabolic mirror towards the sun. At 33,000 rupees ($460) it is hardly affordable for personal households. The middle model (smaller and without the clockwork) is less than half the price. A miniature reflector version is available as a 700-rupee DIY kit. Yes, I got one!
It is time for the walk back to our campus, chai and canteen dinner line are waiting.