By Mallika Das, Barefoot College Education Volunteer, Tilonia Rajasthan

First a confession: I had never written a story in my life until a week ago. Story-telling is not my thing – academic articles? Yes, of course! Been there, done that. But, write a story – that too, one for rural children? Never. Hence it is with some trepidation that I reached Barefoot College on January 2nd.

I began with interviewing women who had come for the solar engineering program. I decided to start with Caroline, a woman from Namibia who could speak some English. She is about 50 years old; a grandmother who had to stop going to school because her widowed mother could only afford to send one child to school and that was her brother. But her spirit was inspiring. At 50, she had left her village and family and come all the way to a strange country to learn about solar technology. “Why?”, I asked her.

“Because it is my time now; I want to show people that I can do something. Just because you are old, does not mean you cannot learn!”

Caroline, Barefoot College Solar Mama Trainee from Namibia

The experience of interviewing the women from other countries and those from India is something I will never forget. Desere, who had to quit school when she became a single mother at 16 and yet found the courage to come to Barefoot College to bring her village ‘from darkness to light’. I was amazed at the determination of Diyali, a young widow from Rural Sipri, India who wanted to learn to install solar lighting systems to earn a dignified wage and and provide for her son. Or Ranjani, a beautiful Oriya woman who had only dreamed of getting married and living in a big house, but found that it was just not enough. She decided to enter rural politics and soon became a panchayat member. But even that was not enough.

“I need to do something more”, she said. “If Indira Gandhi can rule this country, I can definitely become a sarpanch!” she said confidently.

Ranjani, Solar Mama Engineer from Manipur

Solar mamas gathered around me while I was doing my first interview and pretty soon, word spread around that I was the ‘story lady’. I would go at lunch time (as I did not want to disturb their classes), have lunch quickly, and wait for the next person I was to interview. The solar mamas would gather around me and start telling me where they are from and ask if I wanted to talk to them. I felt like a reporter!

Two weeks flew by and there I was, with six stories written. The next stage was telling it to the children. Ever the academic, my first tendency was to cram the stories into my mind. Then I realized that this was not an exam; this was to be a fun exercise. So, I decided to go with just the story in my mind and a few photos.

The children at Singla Residential School were from very poor backgrounds and living away from their parents and family members. The School had become their new family. “Namaste Ji”, they said with the widest and most welcoming smiles I had ever seen. The more confident ones ventured to greet me in English with a “good morning!”. They gathered around and sat on the floor around me.

I began with a confession – I told them that I am from South India and could speak only a little Hindi. They all nodded in sympathy and waited patiently for Sanjana, a Barefoot – SBI Fellow, to translate my stories to Hindi. It was wonderful to see them listen to the stories and to see the light in their eyes as they grasped the achievements of my female characters. They could relate to the dreams of Desere, Ranjani, Diyali and even Deepika Kumari, an Indian athlete who currently ranks fifth best archer in the world and all come from a similar background to their own.

I will always remember my experiences in Tilonia fondly. The chats with the solar mamas and other local women made me realize the strength and determination of these women – all of whom were from less-privileged backgrounds and yet had managed to overcome their difficulties and achieve their dreams. It truly humbled me. And the experience of telling stories to children was a fun and rewarding experience. I will remember their smiles and their innocence, their excitement in having someone new chat with them and their openness to welcome a stranger into their lives.

I am still not a story-teller – not by profession. But the women and beautiful children at Barefoot College have inspired me to give it another shot. I’ll be back!

Desere, Barefoot College Solar Mama Trainee from Namibia

Diyali, Barefoot College Solar Mama Trainee from Manipur

Mallika’s volunteer initiative was inspired by the book Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, a book which showcases female role models who have changed the world. Barefoot Education continues to create inspiring experiences that help children grow, support us by contributing or volunteering. For more information please contact our department head, Shuvajit at