Rafea Anadi appears almost lost within her long, black veil. Short of stature and slightly bowed, she seems she could be blown away by the wind.
But one look in her dark brown eyes – unflinching, unafraid – and you know that Ms. Anadi is someone who is not to be trifled with.
Ms. Anadi is the star of the documentary film Solar Mamas. The film follows Ms. Anadi and her friend, the older, quieter Umm Badr, as they journey to India to be trained in solar engineering and return to their remote village to implement what they have learned.
The women were selected to be trainees at the Barefoot College, a programme created by the Indian activist, Bunker Roy, where illiterate and semi-literate grandmothers from rural villages around the world are trained to become solar engineers. With many of the women unable to speak the same language as their instructors, knowledge during the six-month course is transferred using sign language, repetition, and visual aids.
Amazingly, the technical challenges these women faced were just the beginning of their story. Six weeks into the course, Ms. Anadi’s husband called to tell her that if she did not return immediately he would divorce her and take her children. By staying at Barefoot College, she was breaking radically with the moral order of her community. But remember those eyes: Rafea Anadi cannot be intimidated.
Did she have doubts?
“Never. I always wanted to do it. On the contrary, you tell me ‘no’ and I want to do it ten times more,” she says with only the faintest hint of a smile.
Mona Eldaief, the director of Solar Mamas, focused on these women from Jordan because she wanted to capture some of the cultural obstacles that women can face when attempting to change their communities. Anadi and Umm Badr went through “hell” to reach their goal, according to Ms. Eldaief.
At the same time, the director wanted the film to demonstrate how much can be accomplished by putting the responsibility for alleviating poverty into the hands of women.
“If you give a man training he might take his skills and move to the city, away from his family. But when a woman has control her instinct is to give it back to her children,” says Ms. Eldaief. “And we see in Rafea’s case that she was able to bring sustainable income and sustainable energy to where there’s no resources.”
The other lesson of Ms. Anadi’s experience is that the knowledge she gained can bring profound, positive changes to the sustainability of small communities.
Raouf Dabbas appeared in the film when he was senior adviser to Minister of the Environment in Jordan. He is now vice-president of Friends of the Environment, which has taken over the mission of training and equipping local women in solar engineering. “Jordan is the fourth poorest country in the world for water resources… and receives 90 per cent of its energy from outside,” he says.
This means that in small impoverished towns where fuel is extremely expensive, villagers must burn firewood. The frequent uprooting of trees loosens ground soil and destabilises the entire ecosystem.
The knowledge and resources provided by Barefoot College and Friends of the Environment allowed villagers to halt this practice at a stroke. Ms. Anandi was also trained in the installation of solar cookers and water harvesting technology, making the town even more independent and sustainable.
What makes the programme different than other solar initiatives, says Mr. Dabbas, is the fact that training local women creates a lasting change. While solar systems implanted by other NGOs broke down after six or seven years, the systems in Ms. Anadi’s village can last indefinitely as she passes on her knowledge to the community.
“By doing it this way the people of the village are empowered … It’s a great model that we can replicate everywhere,” says Mr. Dabbas. “I hope that through COP18, we’ll shed light to all the legislators who are here that we can do the change if we’re thinking in a sustainable way.”
Mr. Dabbas says that the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – the Kyoto Protocol’s mechanism for funding emissions reduction and limitation projects – is overly complex and frequently overlooks small, unique projects by organisation such as Friends of the Environment. He calls on decision makers at COP18/CMP8 to devise a financing mechanism that is “more grass-roots organisation friendly”.
As these and similar initiatives wait for funding, Ms Anadi has a message for any woman who, like her, wants to change the future of their community for the better.
“I would tell her that there is nothing that a woman cannot do if she puts her mind to it,” she says.
Does she mean it? Just look in her eyes.