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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The students are mostly women. Some are grandmothers. Hundreds have come through here from villages across India and a dozen other countries to learn how to install and maintain solar energy in rural areas.
Even though it’s sophisticated coursework, the only pre-requisite for admission to the Barefoot College is that there are no pre-requisites, not even to speak the language.
Until we arrived with a translator, these Mauritanian women who’d been here four months hadn’t spoken to anyone else in Arabic, the only language they know. But language is not a barrier to learning, says the college’s founder.
BUNKER ROY (Founder, Barefoot College): Our job is to show how it is possible to take an illiterate woman and make her into an engineer in six months and show that she can solar-electrify a village.
DE SAM LAZARO: Bunker Roy, a social activist influenced by Gandhi, founded the Barefoot College in 1972. He wanted to use traditional knowledge and sustainable technology to help this impoverished desert region. It began with basics, like finding safe drinking water, then several years later, solar energy.
Mr. ROY: In 1986, no one ever thought of solar electrification. It was far too expensive. But today we have 50 kilowatts of panels on our roofs. All our 20, 30 computers, electronic machines, telephone exchange — all work off solar.
DE SAM LAZARO: Today solar energy drives not just the equipment. This is a larger social experiment to improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest people. It begins in the classroom run by instructors who themselves have little or no formal education. Instruction is delivered with a mix of body language, a few essential terms in English, and lots of hands-on practice.
The students create an illustrated manual they’ll take home. It’s the closest thing to a diploma certifying their training as solar technicians. But just coming here is an unlikely achievement for students like 56-year-old Sarka Mussara, a widowed grandmother. She’d never attended school or even left her village in the West African nation of Mauritania.
SARKA MUSSARA (Student, through translator): At first we did not even have a passport. We started little by little learning the solar energy system. Day by day and little by little we were able to put things together.
DE SAM LAZARO: Roy was educated at elite Indian schools, on a path to medicine or diplomatic service before he founded the Barefoot College. The idea of self-reliant learning was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi — also by a legendary American.
Mr. ROY: Well, it’s Mark Twain who said never let school interfere with your education. School is something that you learn — reading and writing. Education is what you learn from the family, from the environment, from the community.
DE SAM LAZARO: Using grants from the U.N. and private foundations, Roy travels extensively in developing countries, seeking potential students. He doesn’t want city dwellers or, unless they are physically handicapped, men.
Mr. ROY: We’ve come to the sad conclusion men are untrainable. They expect too much. They are restless. If they’re young, they’re impatient. The first thing they ask even before the training starts is, do I get a certificate? They will use that certificate to get the worst job possible in a city, whereas if we take middle-aged grandmothers to be trained I don’t have that problem of migration.
DE SAM LAZARO: Their new skills and income should improve these women’s standing at home and in the community — communities that, like much of the developing world, are not electrified.
Mr. ROY (to students, through translator): How many houses are in the town?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN STUDENT #1: About 500 people.
Mr. ROY: Five hundred.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN STUDENT #2 (speaking to Mr. Roy, through translator): May God reward you for what you have done, because those people did not have any light and now they will have light.
DE SAM LAZARO: And these women will have an income installing and maintaining solar systems. They are a common sight in villages near the Barefoot campus, where people have replaced lanterns that use dirtier and more expensive fuels.
Mr. ROY: We said they should pay as much as you pay today for kerosene, for wood, for batteries, for torches, for candles. Comes to about $5 a month. They’re willing to pay $5 a month for the use of a solar light.
DE SAM LAZARO: Solar has opened new opportunities for work and study, especially for girls. In both the majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities here girls have traditionally been restricted to household chores.
Mr. ROY: It is the girls who go and graze the cattle and graze the goats and the sheep. There is a feeling in the family that the boys should be getting better education — better education, whatever that means. So we started the night schools of Tilonia in 1975, purely from the point of view of attracting more girls who graze cattle in the morning to come to school at night.
DE SAM LAZARO: Today some 7000 children attend night school here and across rural north India. In song, these girls plead to their parents to allow them to study, to delay marriage until they turn the legal age of 18. That law is frequently ignored in rural society
PUPPETEER (during performance speaking with kids, through translator): OK, eight and five make how much?
KIDS (through translator): Thirteen.
PUPPETEER: And 10 plus three?
KIDS (through translator): Thirteen.
DE SAM LAZARO: Entertainment programs promote the Barefoot College and encourage children to attend school. There have also been various other campaigns to promote public health and citizen demands for government transparency. The new economic activity seems to be eroding social barriers. For example, several women work to create solar stoves, a Barefoot College enterprise. The solar cookers made at the Barefoot College are a simple but precisely engineered contraption. These mirrors track and capture the sun’s energy and direct it to a cooker, which really cooks. For these technicians, most with little or no formal education, working here means they can hope for better things for their children.
SITA DEVI (Solar Technician, trough translator): My daughter must be educated. She will be able to do things, to progress so much faster than I can because of going to school more. For me, for example, it takes so much more time to measure out three centimeters when I’m welding here, whereas someone who is educated could do it in no time.
SHAHNAZ BANU (Solar Technician, through translator): In our village, in our community, women were not allowed outside the house. My husband was reluctant. But I said if we stay behind the veil we won’t have anything to eat. Some people object to women working, but if we can add income to the household that’s a good thing, isn’t it?
DE SAM LAZARO: Roy says a key to sustaining rural jobs and development is to use technology that can be managed by the local community, like solar lanterns and technology that’s more familiar, like rainwater collectors.
Mr. ROY: All the roofs of this whole campus are connected underground to a 400,000 liter tank. We collect every drop of rain that falls on the campus.
DE SAM LAZARO: For Roy, decentralization is the key. It’s a departure from the typical approach of aid agencies, which he says want to bring big infrastructure and big ideas created by outside experts.
Mr. ROY: If you ask an engineer what they think is the solution, they’ll have one power plant of five kilowatts that you saw on the roofs of the campus and then have transmission lines going to the houses, centralized. We say no. The solution is decentralized right down to the household level, where the house actually maintains and looks after the solar unit. It shouldn’t be centralized. Any technology that brings in dependency on anybody on the outside is not a technology that will work.
DE SAM LAZARO: So far, Barefoot College has solar electrified some 350 villages across India and dozens more in sub-Saharan Africa and even war-torn Afghanistan.
For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Fred De Sam Lazaro in Rajasthan, India.