Story by Chelsey Harmer, Dialogue of Civilizations ⎜ Photo by Maria Virginia
Sitting on the ground in a circle, barefoot, metal trays in front of us, watching the locals skillfully eat a heaping plate of dal, rice, and roti without using any silverware. Children from a nearby village wandering over to play, learning their names without sharing a common language. Stray dogs trailing along behind us fighting with one another, hoping to get fed. The smell of much needed rain pouring down, filling the reserves, getting caught with no umbrella. Sleeping on a low cot, watching millipedes crawl under the door.
These were the sights, sounds, and smells of our stay at Barefoot College. After driving many hours on the deserted highway, and down narrow bumpy cow-filled roads, we found ourselves in Tilonia, a village in the Ajmer district in Rajasthan, Northern India. Our stay was humbling, and I had to embrace being uncomfortable at times. It was here, away from the organized chaos that exists in the cities, that I learned some of the most valuable lessons from our entire dialogue. I realized, sitting on the floor among the others, eating some of the best food I would have over the whole trip, that Barefoot College is truly a hidden gem. While it may not be a traditional college, as its name implies, it is a place that embodies community, education, and growth.
Barefoot College was built by the poor, for the poor. The mission of the organization is centered around supporting and nurturing rural villages, empowering them to become innovators and educators. My experience at Barefoot was unique because it is unlike any other social enterprise that we visited. I realized that development does not have to entail urbanization. There is value and untapped potential in empowering the rural poor by spreading self-sufficiency and sustainability to the most remote places in the world. This is achieved through many different lenses at the college, from educating others about energy and water to sexual education and dental care. Barefoot’s innovative solutions target 14 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. The most impressive program the college has to offer is the Solar Mamas.
When I walked into the workroom containing 45 women of all different nationalities, sitting on either side of a long table filed with circuit boards, soldering tools, I was awestruck. These mothers and grandmothers were busy at work laughing and wiring solar lanterns, communicating without sharing a common language. These women were the current group of “Solar Mamas”, who came to Tilonia from the most remote villages across the globe to train to become solar engineers. By the end of six months, the women are sent home with the knowledge and tools required to bring solar power to their villages, all without using a universal language, but instead with a workbook that uses diagrams and pictures. The women in the current group were from 10 different countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Myanmar. I had a chance to speak with the women from Uganda who knew English. All four were very grateful for the experience, a little homesick, and were excited to go home and light their villages. In addition to learning engineering skills, they also take courses in personal finance, entrepreneurship, sexual health, and technology. The women were confident and seemed to enjoy the safe space that Barefoot had created for them. The whole workroom had a sort of buzz to it, an energy and confidence that spread between the women as they worked side by side; in that moment, I knew Barefoot was a very special place.
Barefoot College provided me with a new perspective on rural development. My previous mindset was rigid, in that development is about baby steps and access to basic necessities, but my experience at Barefoot taught me that these villages have all of the capability they need; education, training, and technology are the key to helping them make leaps and bounds instead of baby steps.