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The heroes in this story were poor, lived in remote villages and many were illiterate. Despite those obstacles, they learned to harness the power of the sun to bring power and electricity to their communities, which would otherwise have been forced to go without.
The video depicts 35 ‘solar warriors’ – women of various ages who left their children and husbands in Bhutan to go to Tilonia, a small rural village in the Indian province of Rajasthan. There, they spent six months learning basic solar engineering skills at Barefoot College, a non-government organisation set up to empower rural communities by teaching them self-sufficiency.
During their stay, the women learned to fabricate charge controllers and inverters, and to install solar panels and link them to develop cycled batteries – a considerable feat given the women did not speak the local dialect and could learn only through sign language. Upon their return to Bhutan, they distributed solar units to 500 homes in 48 previously un-electrified villages across the country. Prior to the units being installed, the returning women set up 18 rural electronic workshops across 13 districts, making it possible to carry out repairs should any problems with the units occur. As a result, reliable power was delivered to many previously power-free villages.
These women are not alone. Since its inception in 1972, Barefoot College has provided training to rural men, women and children in a wide range of third world and developing nations, including India, Bhutan, Sierra Leone, The Gambia and many more. In addition to teaching about solar energy, Barefoot teaches selected rural community members the skills required to make their communities self-sufficient in areas such as water infrastructure, education, healthcare, crafts and livelihood.
An illiterate grandmother can do it
Barefoot’s founder Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy is adamant in his belief that people of limited educational background can learn advanced technical skills.
“If you ask any solar engineer anywhere in the world they will say it is technically impossible for anyone who hasn’t gone through a formal education to fabricate a charge controller,” he says. “But when I say an illiterate grandmother from Africa can do it, it is just mind boggling for them – and she’s not only an engineer, she’s a fabricator, an installer, a repairer and a maintainer.”
“They come here as grandmothers but they go back as tigers”.
Roy describes Barefoot as a place of learning and unlearning, where people are encouraged to make mistakes so that they can learn humility, curiosity, and develop the courage to take risks, innovate, and to improvise.
“We take a position that just because you can’t read and write you shouldn’t be penalised,” he says. “There’s nothing preventing you from becoming an engineer or an architect or a dentist; it is just a question of providing an opportunity and the mental and physical space to be able to develop.”
“Mark Twain said ‘never let school interfere with your education.’”
Prior to becoming one of the 35 solar warriors in Bhutan, 30-year-old Chandra Maya was illiterate, unmarried, and had never before gone out of her home village. She says Barefoot has been a life changing experience.
“I don’t know how to read and write,” she says. “Even then I was told to go to India to acquire solar training. I thought, ‘how would I ever be able to do it?”
Maya says now, after becoming a solar engineer, she has more confidence in herself and respect from her fellow villagers.
“People recognise me,” she says. “Villagers know I had training in India and now I am a well-known person in my village. I have now become a solar engineer. I am proud of myself. I am very happy now”.
Images Courtesy Barefoot College
written by Andrew Heaton