There is a college in India that has few parallels in the world of education.
In this college you can train to be an engineer, a doctor, a nurse, a computer engineer, a solar expert, an architect – amongst other things.
Many colleges provide such training, but few have as an entry requirement that you must have little or no formal education. Even fewer colleges will insist that they will not confer the students with qualifications – no matter how proficient they become.
The Barefoot College believes that successful rural development is not only based in the villages but also managed and owned by those it serves. All Barefoot initiatives – social, political or economic, are planned and implemented by a network of rural men and women who are known as ‘Barefoot Professionals’.
Rural men and women irrespective of age, who are barely literate or not at all, and have no hope of getting even the lowest government job, are being trained to work as day and night school teachers, doctors, midwives, dentists, health workers, balsevikas, solar engineers, solar cooker engineers, water drillers, hand pump mechanics, architects, artisans, designers, masons, communicators, water testers, phone operators, blacksmiths, carpenters, computer instructors, accountants and kabaad-se-jugaad professionals.
With little guidance, encouragement and space to grow and exhibit their talent and abilities, people who have been considered ‘very ordinary’ and written off by society, are doing extraordinary things that defy description. (1)
One such graduate of the Barefoot College, is 19 year old, semi-literate Santosh Devi, India’s first Dalit (Untouchable) solar engineer. As she was growing up, Santosh had to avoid the upper caste people in her village or – failing that – cover her face in their presence. (2)
But everything changed when she trained as a solar engineer at the Barefoot College.
The College began their solar engineering course in 2005 and since then they have trained more than 300 Barefoot engineers. These engineers – mostly women – 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 on the same model. The course in solar engineering is made available primarily to women, over 35, who live in remote non-electrified area, anywhere in the world. The only proviso is that they are backed by their villages. Women 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.
At the Barefoot College, 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.
Since becoming a solar engineer, Santosh Devi’s life has changed out of all recognition. Now everybody wants her services – regardless of caste. As she describes it,
“From looking down on the ground when higher caste people passed to looking them in the eye, I never imagined this would have been possible.” (4)
This is an interesting talk by one of the founders of the Barefoot College –