November the 26th, 2017; four days following my last examination for 12th grade, and two days following my senior formal. This was the day my father and I embarked on an incredible trip to India. This was not just a routine visit to see family and friends, where one attends 7 dinners a week, regurgitates the same story about one’s current situation, and witnesses people’s shock over the concept of growth in that you’re no longer a skinny 12 year old baby. Well, not much has changed in the skinny department. Anyway, this trip to the Barefoot College was one that shifted my perspective on human interaction. An enormous part of the communication within college is non-verbal, allowing women from all over the world to defy language barriers and form close friendships. I decided to focus on communication, drafting a project that forced me to get close to the students and understand the stories behind each one of them.
I arrived at the Barefoot College on the afternoon of the 27th, tired but still keen to explore. My father introduced me to Bunker Roy, the founder of the Barefoot organisation and a friendly, peaceful individual. He explained the campus’ extraordinary solar program that was drafted and established by the organisation, Barefoot College International, that I highly recommend that you check out if you have the time.
The Barefoot College was founded in 1972 with a strong focus on eliminating poverty and promoting sustainability, education and opportunity. A major component of the college is the Solar Mamas project. This initiative focusses on the education of elderly women from remote communities around the world. These women are recruited by way of nomination, to join the college for a period of six months. Here, the women undergo extensive training on both the theoretic and practical components of solar engineering. At the college, the women are referred to as ‘Solar Mamas’. Upon acquiring a practical and conceptual understanding of solar technology, the Solar Mamas are encouraged to return to their communities and work to establish a renewable energy network.
The Barefoot College model conducts hands on training in the area of solar engineering. The students (Solar Mamas) are educated on the mechanics of solar lighting, solar water heaters, solar powered desalination, and solar cookers. Training women to understand and operate these utilities allows for widespread application of solar technology when the women return to their communities.
Teaching the methodology of solar engineering is challenging. Teaching complex methodology without spoken language is even more so.
An intruiging aspect of the college was how the teachers and Solar Mamas would utilise body language and expressions to communicate. The women would use image guides in manuals and follow teacher demonstrations to create intricate circuits on a motherboard. Mind-blowing that many of these women are coming from backgrounds of little to no education at all. You would see this sort of stuff in an electrical engineering degree.
Communication became the key component of my project at the college, as I was mesmorised with the efficiency of non-verbal teaching. My father and I drafted a concept of creating 14 unique photo novellas, one for each of the countries that the Mamas were from. The project achieved two objectives.
Firstly, it illustrated the efficiency of non-verabal pedagogy, promoting the success of communication through body language and physical expression.
Secondly, the novellas provided the students with documentation of their experience. This allowed students to (a) illustrate the nature of the college and their experience to friends and family back home, and (b) provided written qualification of training to work as solar engineers to electrify their respective communities and promote sustainable energy.
I was highly intrigued by the concept of the project, and my first task was to introduce myself to the Mamas and establish a trusting relationship. In order to document their experience, I had to get close. This was the most challenging component of the project.
Ivory Coast – Photo Novella
On the first day, I felt rather uneasy in the new environment. Upon pulling out my camera, many of the Mamas would turn away or cover their faces. Gaining consent to photograph the women was not easy. Communication had to be completely non-verbal, and I needed to make the Mamas feel comfortable around me. I left that day pondering ways to more effectively engage with the students.
Day two, I took a different approach. I found a hilarious, pink broad-brim hat in one of the offices and wore it into the classroom. I immediately became the clown figure. The Mamas were pointing and laughing at me.
It was working.
Establishing myself as a Mr. Bean-esque figure allowed the Mamas to feel more secure with me around.
I’m no threat, I’m just a clown.
I began to laugh with the Mamas, miming to add some comedic flare. Mid-way through day two I began to capture a lot of photographs. The shyness dissipated, as the women began to pose with others and showcase their work. In the days following, my relationship with the Mamas strengthened, and a few of them invited me to their living spaces to photograph their activities during their days off. This was incredible for me. Gaining insight into their lives added a critical, emotional layer of depth to the novella. The project transgressed from a focus on teaching, to one that explores the relationships, interactions, and emotional turbulence of a 6-month stint away from home.
I conducted some informal interviews with the Mamas, sitting with them and noting down some things they mentioned about their experience at the college. I was able to converse with select groups that spoke English, asking them about their emotional condition and how they were coping in this 6-month stint away from home. For the others, I would use google translate to ask specific questions. I gave the Mamas the opportunity to draw if they were not comfortable speaking, asking them to sketch anything that they liked, disliked, or found interesting about the college or their experience.
For many of the Mamas, travelling to the Barefoot College was the first venture outside of their country or even community. A lot of the Mamas had also never flown before. Almost everyone mentioned the flight from New Delhi (India’s capital city) to Tilonia (a small village in western India). One of the Mamas from the Cook Islands was very articulate and described the horror flight to me in detail. She mentioned that the plane was a small aircraft and the incessant turbulence made everyone feel queasy. It was ‘not a fun first flight’, she mentioned, for those who have never flown before. Whilst explaining the story, the Mama ensured she used plenty of gestures to allow others nearby to explain what she was talking about. I witnessed various nods, head shakes, and laughter from a few other Mamas who joined in to express either disgust or hilarity at the situation.
Many others I spoke to mentioned how they missed family members. One of the Mamas was quite young, a woman from Belize in her late-30s who was planning on getting married when she returned home. She explained that she missed her partner a lot, however, Facebook messenger allowed her to stay in touch, making distance a little easier. I arrived relatively early in the program, and many of the Mamas felt quite homesick. Being away from home for half a year is daunting, however, the Mamas ensured that they formed a community of friends to stay positive. Despite the women mainly interacting within their nationality, I saw women from different countries slowly start to intermingle and spend time together.
My experience at the Barefoot College was incredibly inspiring. Listening to Bunker Roy tell the story of the college’s foundation illustrates his profound sense of generosity and altruism. Dedicating your life to enhance the lives of others is powerful. This trip moulded my future aspirations to seek writing and photography as avenues to promote the stories and experiences of the voiceless. Grassroots organistaions such as the Barefoot College illustrate the importance of education, sustainability, and opportunity, a few of the critical foundations of a world of equal opportunity.