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Another barefoot revolution in Tilonia

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Tilonia shows the way: Women from several African countries during their training as barefoot solar engineers at Social Work and Research Centre at Tilonia in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district.
Tilonia shows the way: Women from several African countries during their training as barefoot solar engineers at Social Work and Research Centre at Tilonia in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district.

Sunny Sebastian

TILONIA: The transformation is bound to be from darkness to light in their lives as well as in their respective countries as scores of African women learn the skills of solar lighting at the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC) in Tilonia’s Barefoot College.

There seems no communication gap as “illiterate” women from half a dozen least developed African countries live and learn together in this global village founded almost four decades ago by social worker Bunker Roy in Ajmer district.

Urub Ismail, an Ethiopian woman who had been rearing goats in her remote Somali village Chichiga till she landed up in Tilonia village to tinker with capacitors, choke coil and six-pin connectors in an on-hand learning process, is now a picture of confidence. “I will go back and help my community,” says this widow and a mother of six. Urub’s village has only a few houses with electricity connections where solar panels are expected to light up many lives in future. Urub got her air ticket to Delhi from Addis Ababa on the recommendation of the Indian Ambassador in Ethiopia.

There are six others from Ethiopia — two more from the Somali ethnic region and four from Tigray — now learning the skill of barefoot solar engineers along with those from Mozambique, Sudan, Djibouti, Sierra Leone and Senegal.

Two women, including one from Siberia, are in Ladkah, another centre where SWRC has an extensive solar lighting network. All these women will install solar lights in their villages and supervise their maintenance with the support of the community.

The training is supported by Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC), a bilateral programme started by the Government of India back in 1964 under which 156 countries in Asia, Africa, East Europe, Central and Latin America and Pacific nations benefit. As many as 22 African countries are included in this programme. In India only SWRC Tilonia imparts training in solar energy under the programme.

There are 40 women -- some mothers and others grandmothers -- undergoing training in Tilonia at present and Roy says being a woman -- and at least a mother if not a grandmother -- is an essential qualification for selection.

Stars in the making

“I have handpicked all the candidates during my visits to the remotest parts of Africa from places which have remained untouched by development so far,” he says.

The six-month training, started from March 15, will last till September 15 by when the women get no certificate but passports for stardom. “As soon as they walk out of this place they are stars in their native places,” says Roy, whose centre has already trained women from Bhutan, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania and Gambia in solar lighting. “Barefoot College does not issue any certificate,” says Mr. Roy, whose aversion to formal learning is well known. “We are teaching them only by hand. There is no reading and writing here,” he points out.

Roy is confident of the success of these women back home. “We choose women as they are guaranteed to stay back in their village unlike men. Moreover, men are rather un-trainable as they ask too many questions,” quips Roy half-seriously. However, he is quick to add that the solar programmes have checked migration of people from villages to cities in Africa.

Women are doing well, having braved a hot Rajasthan summer to enjoy the welcome showers now. “Basically non-vegetarians, these African women are seemingly enjoying the vegetarian food at Tilonia, for most of them have gained weight after their arrival,” says Teja Ram of SWRC Tilonia.

“Khana achcha; rehna achcha (food and accommodation are good),” asserts Madioula Silla from Senegal, a mother of four daughters. In a new-found camaraderie these women cook together and live on the same premises despite communication gap among them.


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