A Story from Tilonia, Rajasthan

Tilonia is one of my favorite places in the world. Just over an hour from Jaipur, this village is a miracle of human ingenuity. I am not the only one. From heads of state (Barack Obama) to top CEOs (Tim Cook), Tilonia blows everyone away. So why is this village so incredible?

Over 40 years ago, Bunker Roy ( now : Padma Shree Awardee, Time’s 100 Most Influential People; then : a young college graduate) decided to move to Tilonia. Inspired by Gandhi-ji and galvanized to respond to the 1967 famine in India, Bunker helped create the “Barefoot College”.

The goal behind Barefoot College is simple. Teach rural people skills with which they can transform their villages, regardless of their gender, caste, ethnicity, age or schooling. In the last few years, the college (run entirely by the villagers of Tilonia) has helped move over 30 lakh (3 million) Indians out of poverty. No, that’s not a typo. A single non-profit, based in a small village in India, has helped transform 3 million lives. And that’s not all!

Barefoot College now operates in more than 80 countries and on four continents, becoming one of the largest NGOs in the world. The values that Bunker founded the College on remain in practice in regional centers now starting in Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Islands.

The College’s approach is simple. Low cost, decentralised and community driven. The approach works by capitalising on the resources already present in the villages. Instead of looking towards Paris, Finland or Zurich for educational models, the Barefoot College learned from the villagers in Tilonia it aimed to help.

“So the college works following the lifestyle and workstyle of Mahatma Gandhi. You eat on the floor, you sleep on the floor, you work on the floor. There are no contracts, no written contracts. You can stay with me for 20 years, go tomorrow. And no one can get more than $100 a month. You come for the money, you don't come to Barefoot College. You come for the work and the challenge, you'll come to the Barefoot College. That is where we want you to try crazy ideas. Whatever idea you have, come and try it. It doesn't matter if you fail. Battered, bruised, you start again. It's the only college where the teacher is the learner and the learner is the teacher. And it's the only college where we don't give a certificate. You are certified by the community you serve. You don't need a paper to hang on the wall to show that you are an engineer.” ~ Bunker Roy on how the Barefoot College operates

One of the flagship programs that the College runs (and my personal favorite) is the “Solar Mamas” program.

Solar Mamas ~ Training Rural Grandmothers To Be Solar Engineers

I am from Ladakh. I came here on 1st October for 6 months and now I am studying solar engineering. Our village is so far from Leh, Ladakh. Around 150 kilometers away. It is a remote and backward area. There’s a problem of electricity. We will go back after the 6 months of training and bring electricity to our village. ” ~ A Barefoot Engineer

Thousands of rural women who can’t read or write have trained themselves to become solar engineers at the Barefoot College. Since the solar course was launched in 2005, more than 300 Barefoot engineers have brought power to more than 13,000 homes across India. A further 6,000 households, in more than 120 villages in 24 countries from Afghanistan to Uganda, have been powered by the same model. So, why women?

“One lesson we learned was men are untrainable. Men are restless, men are compulsively mobile, and they all want a certificate. All across the globe, you have this tendency of men wanting a certificate. Why? Because they want to leave the village and go to a city, looking for a job. So we came up with a great solution: train grandmothers.” ~ Bunker Roy

So, how do women who can’t read or write become solar engineers? The women learn through listening and memorising, using colour-coded charts that help them to remember the permutation and combination of the wires without needing to read or write. The model is being replicated in Africa, Latin America and south Asia. The first batch of Barefoot engineers from Tanzania, Uganda, Gambia, Malawi, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Bhutan completed their six-month residential training at Tilonia between 2008 and 2009, and have since set up solar power in their villages.

That’s right! Rural women from across the globe come to a small village in Rajasthan to learn how to become solar engineers. After six months, they go back and bring electricity to their communities! How cool is that? :)

When I visited Tilonia, it blew my mind to see women from Tilonia training women from rural Tanzania. Sometimes, the College uses sign language to help women from different countries communicate! The first village ever to be solar-electrified in Afghanistan was by three Barefoot women engineers taught in Tilonia. Those three women trained 27 more women engineers and together they brought electricity to over 100 villages in Afghanistan. One of the engineers is an extraordinary 55 year old grandmother, who single handedly solar-electrified 200 houses in Afghanistan.

“We went to Africa, and we did the same thing. All these women sitting at one table from eight, nine countries, all chatting to each other, not understanding a word, because they're all speaking a different language. They're speaking to each other and actually becoming solar engineers. I went to Sierra Leone, and there was this minister driving down in the dead of night -- comes across this village. Comes back, goes into the village, says, "Well what's the story?" They said, "These two grandmothers ... " "Grandmothers?" The minister couldn't believe what was happening. "Where did they go?" "Went to India and back." Went straight to the president. He said, "Do you know there's a solar-electrified village in Sierra Leone?" He said, "No." Half the cabinet went to see the grandmothers the next day. "What's the story." So he summoned me and said, "Can you train me 150 grandmothers?" I said, "I can't, Mr. President. But they will. The grandmothers will." So he built me the first Barefoot training center in Sierra Leone. And 150 grandmothers have been trained in Sierra Leone.”
~ Bunker Roy on introducing Solar Mama program in Sierra Leone

Building Night Schools In Tilonia

60 percent of children in Tilonia didn’t go to school, because they had to look after animals in the day. The Barefoot College started night schools, which have now taught over 75,000 children. And you guessed it, all schools are solar-lit!

“Every five years we have an election. Between six to 14 year-old children participate in a democratic process, and they elect a prime minister. The prime minister is 12 years old. She looks after 20 goats in the morning, but she's prime minister in the evening. She has a cabinet, a minister of education, a minister for energy, a minister for health. And they actually monitor and supervise 150 schools for 7,000 children. She got the World's Children's Prize five years ago, and she went to Sweden. First time ever going out of her village. Never seen Sweden. Wasn't dazzled at all by what was happening. And the Queen of Sweden, who's there, turned to me and said, "Can you ask this child where she got her confidence from? She's only 12 years old, and she's not dazzled by anything." And the girl, who's on her left, turned to me and looked at the queen straight in the eye and said, "Please tell her I'm the prime minister.”

Using Puppets To Share Local Knowledge

The first time I went to Tilonia, I was surprised to see the puppet laboratory. Villagers experiment with different puppets to share messages. From sex education to gender rights, whatever the issue, the puppets are used to share messages.

“Where the percentage of illiteracy is very high, we use puppetry. Puppets is the way we communicate. You have Jokhim Chacha who is 300 years old. He is my psychoanalyst. He is my teacher. He's my doctor. He's my lawyer. He's my donor. He actually raises money, solves my disputes. He solves my problems in the village. If there's tension in the village, if attendance at the schools goes down and there's a friction between the teacher and the parent, the puppet calls the teacher and the parent in front of the whole village and says, "Shake hands. The attendance must not drop." These puppets are made out of recycled World Bank reports.”

All of this barely scratches the surface. Women in Tilonia aren’t just solar engineers. They are involved in sanitary napkin production, dentistry and they run the local state of the art hospitals. They use computers to maintain records of “balwadi” nutrition programs for their children. Though most women at Barefoot can’t read or write, they show us how much one can achieve with the right training, irrespective of education levels.

Villagers in Tilonia (much like villagers anywhere) are incredibly impressive. The village has a vibrant self-taught iOS development community (I know! What!). The village has an iMac lab (gifted by Apple) and free WiFi across the centers. Another villager in Tilonia built a website to show water impurities in groundwater in local communities. Even though he had only completed 10th grade, he learnt how to test groundwater and build a web platform. The website is updated daily and is used by Barefoot administrators and government organizations to understand where to install water purifiers.

“Earlier, villagers had no idea if their water was drinkable. Now, they just check on our website to make sure that their groundwater doesn’t have any Fluoride. We have also led to a greater sensitivity about drinking water. So villagers now use ‘alum’ in collected rainwater to make sure it’s drinkable.”

So do yourself a favor and visit! Tilonia is only an hour from Jaipur and the College loves hosting people. I will end with one of my favorite quotes by Bunker:

“I think you don't have to look for solutions outside. Look for solutions within. And listen to people. They have the solutions in front of you. They're all over the world. Don't even worry. Don't listen to the World Bank, listen to the people on the ground. They have all the solutions in the world.”

Read more about the Barefoot College here and here !

~ Manu Chopra