Selection of Solar Engineers in Burundi village

It was a strange sensation having a village meeting surrounded by armed soldiers with rifles, perched on the rocks above where the women and children sat and spoke with me, quietly. There was a wary and haunted look about the women there. Resignation and a glimmer of hope. Having lived through several armed conflicts most telling me stories of lost loved ones or violence against them with a banal tone that could as easily have been speaking about a day at the local market; It was impossible not to see their gentle strength.

Two women were participating very verbally as I asked them about household expenditures. They slowly had moved towards the front of the group and were inching closer to me…. This strange white woman dressed in Indian clothes asking who of them would like to leave and study in India for the next 6 months.

My memory was so strong and clear. They did not smile once and looked so much older than their age, when asked. Their eyes somehow void of joy or emotion. But they put their hands up and said, “yes, choose me, I want to go.”

I watched their transformation has been astonishing. Transformed into Solar Engineers, but beyond that, into joyous and confident women. Women who worked and laughed and bossed about other women from 7 countries they had never heard of or known existed, in languages they did not speak. I hardly recognize their faces today, so much younger and alive than when they arrived.

It is this the magic of this organization. To provide the environment for self- transformation and confidence building. These ladies will never be the same, their village will never be the same because of them, and that I feel is the essence of sustainable development. Meet our Women Barefoot Solar Engineers, the pride of Burundi!

The first women heroes of Tombouctou

In October 2006, Tombouctou was visited for the first time for an experiment. The idea was to work through indigenous organization to select remote rural villages where there was no hope of conventional grid reaching them and providing lighting through solar power.

Tombouctou is not in the middle of the Sahara desert but on the river Niger, and it’s the wheat and rice bowl of Mali. It takes two days by road and 7 days by boat from Bamako to Tombouctou. Thus basic provisions are scarce and expensive. If a village in Tombouctou could be solar electrified against such odds, adopting a Barefoot approach then it was possible that this process could be replicated anywhere.

The village of Timjamban was selected through Norwegian church aid. The village was 25 kms away from Tombouctou where the source of income is animal husbandry and farming and handicrafts. All work in the house used to be completed before sun sets. The light from candles, torches and kerosene lamp was not enough for their children to read. Some did not even have access to kerosene. It was a nomadic village of some 92 houses. The village had a school and a mosque. The language they speak was Tamashai and French. The whole village was stunned when it was suggested that two illiterate women with no formal education will be sent to India as Barefoot solar engineers. But after several meetings with the whole community two decisions were taken:

  • That the comm. Agreed to pay in writing one thousand FCFA(2.5$) for each solar unit per month.
  • That they would send two women for training to Tilonia

The first woman was Ameenata, a 40 year old widow with three children, living with her brother and father. She was illiterate and used to live in a mud house. The second woman was Haja, 40 years old widow with one daughter and no educational qualification, also living in a mud house or a tent.

Norwegian church aid arranged for their passports and on 25th January, 2007 they arrived in Tilonia. During the six months training in Tilonia from January 2007 to June 2007 they learnt how to fabricate sophisticated charged controllers inverters and install solar panels and link them to deep cycle batteries through sign language. Their extra ordinary guts to come to a strange country in a strange land and learning about solar technology when they have never ever been to school showed their willingness to learn.

After finishing the training programme on July 7th, 2007 they went back to Mali to electricity their own village. They had to wait for three months for their equipments to arrive. The support of Indian embassy in Senegal helped in release of their equipment quickly. 17th December 2007 was a big day for the village as that was the day when solar units were distributed to the whole of Timjamban. It was the first village fully solar electrified in the Sahara and indeed in the West Africa. It took 7-10 days for the two women to solar electrify the whole village

So what difference has solar electrified houses had made to their lives? The women could now cook at night in the open with solar lanterns. They could work on increasing their income by making handicrafts at home. Children could study at night. Women did not have to walk for miles to the city and stand in queue for purchasing kerosene at black market rates spending around 3000- 4000 FCFA per month. Now they spent only 1000 FCFA per month. Thus two very ordinary women with their extra ordinary efforts set an example for the whole of Africa and showed how impossible could be achieved.