Barefoot Grandmothers: A new elite of empowered and liberated women

‘Barefoot Grandmothers’ – if this expression conjures up images of poverty-ridden wizened old women, you could be forgiven for being out of sync. For they are the new elite of the empowered and liberated women who are lighting up remote villages in Africa, Latin America and the Pacific island countries with solar engineering skills learnt in a small village in Rajasthan in India.

Why elite? one may ask. It’s not that they are rich or powerful in any conventional sense, but they are the real elite, an aristocracy of the spirit, in as much as they have shown exemplary will and drive for self-transformation.

Barely six months ago, they were living in far-flung villages in Senegal, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Nauru, El Salvador, Haiti, Zanzibar and Sudan. Illiterate and sequestered from the fever and fret of the metropolis, they had never even ventured out of their little village. And then one fine day, they were off on their first journey into the unknown, a flight to India, thanks to the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme, a creative capacity building initiative of India’s external affairs ministry.

In Tilonia, a small village near Ajmer in Rajasthan, they found a place that was thousands of miles away from their homes, but one they could easily connect to. The pace and tempo of life in a village anywhere in the world is the same, says Bunker Roy, founder of Barefoot College, and eminent educator who was chosen by Time magazine as one of 100 most influential personalities in 2010 for his pioneering work in educating illiterate and semi-literate rural Indians.

“The first month is difficult – they miss home and mobile bills are the highest,” recalls Roy. But then they merge into the rhythms of village life at Tilonia, learning from another illiterate woman how to put together a solar lantern, the gift of light they will carry back home – passing on the light, as it were.

What’s refreshing about the way the solar engineering programme at Barefoot College is structured is that the women are given time and space to learn the nitty-gritty of making solar lanterns on their own terms. There is no attempt to hustle them into the drill, or to get them to stick to an artificial regimen. They are given vegetarian food most days of the week, interspersed with occasional treats of meat and fish. They can also cook their own food if they like, says Roy. The guiding philosophy seems to be to awaken their latent creativity and hunger to learn new skills. “We are not chasing targets; we are not pressurizing them to perform or to achieve; we are just carrying the whole group together,” says Roy. It’s not just solar lanterns the women are taught; they are also taught some basic life-sustaining skills like making sanitary napkins and candles. The idea is to make them rural entrepreneurs, says Roy.

There is a bit of cultural cacophony and a melange of tongues, with women speaking English, French, Arabic and Swahili, but language is hardly a barrier to forging camaraderie and a new sisterhood of hope and enterprise. “There is a cultural merger of sorts. Language is not a problem. Hands, sight and sound. They speak and understand the language of signs,” says Roy. “Practice, Practice, Practice. This is how we learn,” says Khadega, a 40-something woman from Vanuatu.

Why choose only grandmothers? “They stay in the village; they never leave the village; they are respected in the village; they can communicate in the village; they have leadership qualities in the village; and we want to make them into role models,” says a beaming Roy. “If you ask about a grandmother in any part of the world, they all feel grandmothers are useless; they are only supposed to stay in the kitchen; they are only supposed to look after the grandchildren. No one has ever looked at them as a change agent. No one has looked at them as a role model. No one has looked at them as people who can change traditional societies and mindsets. Our mission in Tilonia is to make them role models and fundamental agents of change.”

Aided by grants from the ITEC programme, Barefoot College has trained 300 grandmothers in the whole of Africa, who are the sole solar engineers in the entire continent, says Roy. This way, around 20,000 houses in 160 villages across continents have been equipped with solar lightning by these newly-empowered grandmothers.

The solar engineering plan is just one of the innovative ways in which the ITEC, launched on September 15, 1964, is not only imparting skills, but is also acting as a catalyst for enduring socio-economic transformation in the developing countries.

A living embodiment of India’s unstinting commitment to South-South cooperation, transformation is the guiding mantra of the ITEC that hinges on capacity building and skills transfer to hundreds of thousands of students, professionals, and mid-career diplomats in 160 countries across continents, including Africa, Asia, Latin America and East and Central Europe.

Many of the students, who attended ITEC courses, have risen to top positions in their respective fields, and some have gone on to become ministers. In Botswana, for instance, many officers in the defence establishment have been trained under this programme. In Tanzania, over 24 per cent senior government officials have been through the ITEC experience. “India is very advanced in areas of education and science and technology. India’s developmental experience is very relevant for the African continent,” says Dr Salim Ahmed Salim, a former Prime Minister of Tanzania and a former Ambassador of Tanzania to India in the 1960s.

Fittingly, Barefoot College chose March 8, International Women’s Day, to honour around 40 ‘Barefoot Grandmothers’ from least developed countries (LDCs) in a symbolic graduation ceremony at Jawaharlal Nehru Bhavan, the new home of India’s foreign office in New Delhi.

It was a time to say goodbye, and the air was surcharged with emotion, nostalgia and excitement of a new journey. The sheer joy of self-fashioning and the sadness of parting were intimately woven into the atmospherics of the moment. They are going to miss India, chai, chapatti and gup-shup (talk), says Mwanga. Dressed in salwar-kameez imprinted with memories of India, they sang and danced joyously, scripting a new anthem of freedom and a new narrative of empowerment. They came to India with a bit of fear of the unknown, and they will return, “bubbly, confident and self-possessed,” as the harbingers of light, literally. The way to go, as they say.

(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes (, an online magazine and journal focused on international affairs, the India Story, literature and culture. He is also Editor of Two Billion Dreams: Celebrating India-Africa Friendship, a book that captures myriad facets of the burgeoning India-Africa engagement)

Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network ( and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.