Inder Sidhu travels to a remote Rajasthan village where rural African women are learning new skills to transform their lives back home
SUSANNA HUIS grins, then breaks out into barely-controlled laughter. The 49-yearold Namibian farmer can’t quite believe that she’s in India learning how to solder bits of electrical wire together to make a solar-powered lamp — the situation, admittedly, is absurd. Accustomed to a life of udders, tractor gearshifts, and the coarse wooden handle of a butcher’s knife, her hands are lost in the sea of brightly-coloured wiring, circuit nubs and assorted mechanical gear set before her on a work-table — as she sits in Tilonia, a tiny Rajasthan village, about 90 km from Jaipur.
Along with about 30 other women from all over Africa, Susanna is part of the Barefoot College NGO’s ‘solar engineer’ programme, which teaches semi-literate and illiterate women from the continent’s rural communities how to build and maintain solar power sources. Though most of the college’s other initiatives involve Indian villagers and address Indian issues — a dedicated Rajasthani puppet troupe, for instance, puts on vignettes on subjects ranging from what kind of water is safe to drink to the importance of preserving traditional arts and crafts — the atmosphere here in the Barefoot workshop is decidedly Afro-centric: from the striking garb they’ve brought with them to India, to the snatches of folk song that occasionally rise above the solderirons’ cracks and fizzes.
Susanna set off from her small farm in Tsaurob, an equally small village in eastern Namibia, about a month ago, not knowing what to expect. “A man approached us and said we must go to India to learn how we can have light,” she says in broken English, “Now I’m training to be a solar engineer.” The mother of five gingerly prods the lamp she has been working on and lights up, “It’s good!”
After six-months’ training, the women will head back to their homes — armed with equipment and tools provided by the college — to set up solar electricity in their villages and teach others what they have learned. Since the initiative’s inception in 2004, more than 100 women have been trained and roughly 5500 houses have been electrified — in over a dozen African countries, from Gambia to Mozambique. With a chuckle, programme coordinator Bhagwat Nanda says that there have been a few hiccups along the way, “We once had some people come in from Siberia — that didn’t work out because they couldn’t get used to the heat!”
Christa Uises, 49, sits beside Susanna at the Barefoot workshop, soldering intently. Like Susanna, she is a farmer from an east Namibian village, Iharuxaams, and the two speak the same language, Khoekhoe. The pair have become fast friends and spend about as much time laughing as they do on their lamps. Settling down between wisecracks, Christa determinedly says, “I remember everything I do every day — I’ve come here for an aim! Our lives will be changed.”
As the rotund farmer-cum-engineer-in-training finishes her thought, taking a moment to fuss over her lamp, Susanna bossily breaks in, bringing up the flight over to India — the first time either had been in an airplane. “We were on three flights, we went over two seas! The clouds were down on the ground!” she says excitedly, her gestures increasing in both drama and scale as she demonstrates how the plane landed. The one thing they do miss about home, Susanna adds with a knowing grin, is being able to eat meat: “I’m so hungry!” she chortles.
115 women from over a dozen African nations have been trained
THE BAREFOOT workshop is one long room, housed in a colonialera building on the college’s ‘old’ 1972 campus. Though free to sit wherever they please along the work-table, the women typically cluster according to their countries and those they can converse with — a woman beside Christa and Susanna from north Namibia doesn’t speak Khoekhoe, but talks to them through her hands.
Across from the Namibians, Monica Milega from north Tanzania’s Meatu district fiddles with her lamp. “Things are very good [at the college and in Tilonia]”, says the 42-year-old farmer and mother of eight. Though language has been a stumbling block, Monica says she hasn’t had much difficulty adjusting to life in India — knowing that her cows, goats and donkeys are being taken care of while she’s away is a source of comfort and security. Smiling, she says that her main goal is to ensure she is able to teach other villagers what she learns here. Susanna, whose superior English skills enable her to interrupt and deposit her tuppence freely, says, “We’ll light our house first so people can see what we have brought back with us.” At the other end of the table, 35-year-old Yatsa Gambai of Sierra Leone pipes upin agreement.
Though happy with the Barefoot solar scheme, Christa and Susanna can’t understand why only women in their 30s and onwards are selected. “They should have young people who have just finished school here,” says Christa. Pointing towards a woman in her 50s, she adds, “It’s a waste of time and money if you bring people who don’t understand [what the teacher is saying]. If you don’t understand, how can you take it back with you [to teach others]?”As Christa finishes her sentence, the older woman pulls out a solder-iron and busily gets to work — her lamp is nearly done.