Home 9 Regions 9 Africa 9 Here Comes the Sun Queen

…though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Andrew Marvell

You’re nearly forty, living in the village where you were born, where you belong. It’s small, poor, and a hard three hours’ walk to the next village. It could be anywhere: Africa, Asia, Latin America. Let’s say it’s high, on the altiplano of Peru. Or Bolivia. Days can be bright, and sometimes it’s warm, if you stay in the sun. But at night water turns to ice, and everywhere is black, pitch black.

Everyone knows you. You’re your husband’s wife, your children’s mother, their children’s grandmother. You’re just a woman rising daily with the sun to face the challenge of finding food, water, and fuel for your family. A nobody really, except to the people who love you.

You never learned to write. You’ve never been further from your village than that three hours’ walk to the next, the village with the market, where you go every other day — three hours there, carrying the maize your family grew in a striped blanket hefted on your shoulders, then three hours back carrying the things you bought, including heavy kerosene for lighting the after-sunset darkness and cooking the evening meal.

A nobody really. Just another village woman.

Solar Mamas in Madagascar

Learning by doing. Solar Mamas in Madagascar. Photo by Lousie Jasper

Then, one day, a rumor runs round. A man from something called the Barefoot College is coming. That’s in India, he’s Indian! He wants to talk to us all about a new way to light our houses! Come on!

India? you say. Where’s India? What new sort of light? We’ve got kerosene. It works, doesn’t it? Yes… Except, don’t you remember Manuel knocked his lamp over and the house burned down?

So you go and hear him talk about catching light from the sun, sunlight that can be saved to give light at night like kerosene but better, far better because it won’t burn you or your house or make you ill and you wouldn’t have to carry it from the market. You see people nodding, agreeing to pay the monthly charge because this solar light will be cheaper and come straight from the roofs of village houses.

You’re still laughing inside at the silly idea of light from the roof of your house when your friend digs you in the ribs. “Stand up, he wants grandmothers! That’s us!” The next thing you know, you’re telling this man from India that you have five grandchildren… And he’s telling you, you, that you’re going to India to learn the magic of catching the sun and bringing it home…

You! But you’re a nobody.

Proud Solar Mamas with former US President Bill Clinton

Proud Solar Mamas with former US President Bill Clinton

No. You’ll be trained, an entrepreneur, a professional with your own income. A “Solar Mama.” One of the grandmothers who are changing the world, one woman at a time, one village at a time.

You’re afraid. Leave your children, grandchildren, everything homely and familiar? But you hear yourself say yes, I’ll go to India. The instant the words are out you’re terrified, but somehow they’ve woken something inside, pride perhaps, and a wanting something for yourself as well as for this place where you belong.

So you go. Right to the last minute you half-hope it will be called off, but no. Somehow the magician from India organizes it so that you become a woman with a passport and plane ticket. A friend lends a suitcase, you pack – and mustering every ounce of your courage, you step away from home.

And everything changes.

Solar Mamas Malawi

Solar Mamas in Malawi

But someone from India is with you at every step, and each strange thing you meet somehow becomes part of you, and that spark whispering “You can do this!” flares ever higher.

At Barefoot College giant figures greet you — “Namaste!” — and make you smile. Even better, on the first day you meet other women, grandmothers just like you, from Paraguay and Ecuador, Colombia and Chile; and not just Spanish-speakers but from African countries too. They become your friends.

The training is hard and at first you despair, but bit by bit the colored diagrams in the book start to make sense. The day you complete your first solar lantern, switch it on, and see the light that you yourself created is possibly the best in your life.

Until the day you go home. The day you capture the sun for your village. No longer a nobody, you are a Green Rural Woman Entrepreneur, a solar engineer bringing the possibility of light to every house. You know you will train other women to do the same: people will pay you for your skills.

The Sun Queen has arrived.

PBS Feature about Solar Mamas

Some facts:

  • Barefoot College Tilonia chose the first Solar Mama in 2000. Since then over 1700 women from 96 countries have been trained. 1500 villages have been solar-electrified and 75,000 houses have benefited. A total of 45 million liters of kerosene have been kept from polluting the environment.
  • Over 20 years this Barefoot Model has been proven to work. It cost $15 million US including travel, training, transportation, purchase of solar equipment, and installation by the Solar Mamas — all without involving traditionally qualified electrical engineers. It was and continues to be supported by various ministries of the Government of India, the UN and EU, and many others, and has won many prestigious national and international awards.
  • Today, with the program’s foundation laid out and an outreach established throughout the developing world south of the equator, with the same level of investment it should be possible to scale up its impact in five years.

[Source: Barefoot College website]

Barefoot College, established for the rural poor, envisions forging a first-of-its-kind, woman-centered, global network dedicated to sustainable development in every community where poverty exists. Helping people become financially independent is crucial in this. The College runs a range of programs: the solar programme is one. Through 2022 Barefoot College is celebrating 50 years of rural development in India and throughout the developing world south of the equator. Interested?

A researcher-evaluator, Heather Chisnall Malcolm taught in England before moving to a Norwegian non-profit organisation specialising in global educational change. After time in publishing she worked in Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia for the universities of Surrey, Glasgow and Edinburgh. She has travelled widely in South America.
Case Academy Duke

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