Solar Mamas

They can't read or write but they are solar engineers

These Golden Girls of the interior Kota Marudu district of Sabah have brought electricity to 200 homes in four villages there.

Farmers Gining Jaineh, 45, from Kampung Binontungan Suyad, and Rusni Singkamung, 45, from Kam­pung Sungai Magandai, went to Tilonia, Rajasthan, India, for six months in March last year to learn about solar engineering at the Barefoot College, which provides education for the rural underprivileged.

They follow in the footsteps of 47-year-old rubber tapper Tarahing Masanin, who went there in 2014 and returned to light up 100 homes in her village of Kampung Sonsogon Magandai.

Tarahing, Gining and Rusni are the "solar mamas", a global group of illiterate grandmothers who graduated as solar engineers from the Barefoot College after six months of training.

They were picked with help from the Sabah Women Entrepreneurs and Professionals Association (Swepa) to attend the college.

"They have the heart to learn. They are our heroes," said Swepa Barefoot Solar Project organising chairman Datin Jeanette Tambakau.

Since it began about four decades ago, Barefoot College has trained hundreds of “solar mamas” who can now be found in the interior regions all over the world.

All this is due to Indian social activist and college founder Sanjit “Bunker” Roy.

The “solar mamas”, all of whom are grandmothers, introduced solar electricity to some 50,000 houses covering 500 villages in 78 countries.

They know more about solar energy than any graduate after five years of university. Why? Because they are taught in a practical manner. It is only practise, practise and practise,” Roy said.

He said about 40 women would come to the college every six months.

All grandmothers, all illiterate, all learning through their hands,” Roy said.

He was in Tokyo to attend World Assembly of Women where he spoke about the experiences and achievements of the college.

The assembly saw participants from around the world discussing women's issues as part of an initiative by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to encourage women empowerment in Japan and around the world.

Roy explained that no written or spoken methods were used during lessons at Barefoot College.

The women, he said, were taught using sign language and iPads.

Upon their return, each village would be given an electronic workshop where a TV and computer could be fitted.

All communication is pictorial. If a "solar mama" needs any parts, she merely has to press a picture on the iPad and the necessary items will be shipped to her so that she can continue to conduct repair and maintenance works.

We are trying to prove a point that any woman, whether or not she has been to school or college, can pick up the most sophisticated profession. Illiteracy should not be a bar­rier,” he said.

The above article by Dina Murad first published on in Jan, 2017.