In a quiet classroom forty empty chairs await their students. A blackboard, dusty with chalk, takes up one wall; directly opposite a world map flutters in the dry desert breeze from an open window. Sunlight streams in from the doorframe, as the students begin to take their places around a long trestle table.
This is not your everyday classroom. And these are not your everyday students.
This is The Barefoot College, an NGO which aims to empower rural communities to become sustainable and self-sufficient by creating Rural Solar Engineers.
To return home and illuminate their own villages!
Without renewable energy the poorest populations must plunder limited resources to provide a single flame of light for their families. Many nights, they are left in the dark without the ability to capitalize on hours after sunset. This means that because most developing regions work during the day, adults and children alike lose out on opportunities at night for education, recreation or development.
Village Chief has given his blessings to these four Togolese Mamas who will return in 6 months to solar electrify the community.(Photojournalist: Lar Bolands)
Most of the women in class concentrate on their work for the day (today they're soldering circuit boards) but on my visit Lucy, from Cameroon, smiles and leans forward to shake my hand. Sitting at the head of the table nearby is Maria, a Solar Mama from Bolivia. Her story is one of pure inspiration -- she travelled alone for 2000 miles on her first trip away from her family of ten children and two grandchildren. Now she shares a dorm with two Ecuadorian Mamas, Patricia and Estella, who look up to her like a mother. "We could not do this without her," they say.
The notion that grandmothers, with no prior engineering skills (and very limited formal education), can electrify whole villages seems, at first, untenable. But after five minutes in this diverse classroom I can't imagine a more simple and compelling idea. Barefoot College gives these women the opportunity to escape the dogmas of their previous societies and live more freely. Allowing them the space and time to find their true potential.
From South Sudan to Myanmar, Togo to Panama, from 68 different countries around the world "Solar Mamas" (as they are affectionately known) have been chosen by their communities, given their first passport and leave their homes and families behind for the first time in their lives to begin a transformative journey in rural Rajasthan, India, where the Barefoot College Campus is based.
Togolese Solar Mamas return home and stand outside a clinic which they are about to solar electrify. (Photojournalist: Lar Bolands)
Who are the students?
Illiterate grandmothers from non-electrified villages around the world, training to become Solar Engineers.
How do they learn?
Incredibly, because none of the Mamas can read or speak a common language, all teaching is done through symbols, photographs, sign language and repeated practice for six months. Barefoot College demands that a lack of formal education should not stop these women from unleashing their true potential!
My first visit to the Solar Training Centre was an awe-inspiring one. Greeted by a cacophony of noise, the Solar Mamas rang out Welcomes in ten different languages -- "Hola!" "Namaste!" "Maayong Buntag!" "Bonjour!" "Habari!" Their ambition filled the room with an air that gave me strength.
Since its inception in 2008, graduates of the Solar Engineering program have electrified 1015 villages in 68 countries, changing the lives of 500,000 villagers. Using the practical skills gained at Barefoot, the Solar Mamas can light homes, schools and hospitals, and will maintain and repair lamps and panels for up to five years. However, the Solar Mama's journey does not end solely with the acquisition of practical skills and techniques.
While on campus the women absorb each other's diversity, grow in confidence and realize their potential as leaders within their own communities. When returning home they spread the necessity of female empowerment, the harnessing of traditional knowledge and rural techniques, and the goal of equal education for all.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Barefoot College program is not only that women learn to electrify their villages. But that the Solar Mamas who graduate become shining beacons of lights themselves, going on to further inspire and empower a new generation of women with no limitations.
As a new visitor to Barefoot College, I am overwhelmed and inspired by the determination of each of the Solar Mamas. By taking the astounding step to leave their communities and learn a completely new trade, they prove that it is not certificates, grades or job titles that count. Instead, what truly matters is having the courage to make a change, create new solutions, and affect the world positively.
To learn more about the Barefoot College team and help create more autonomous villages around the rural world, please visit here.