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Women from Barefoot College Shine Light Around the World

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 5, 2012

Sanjit "Bunker" Roy believes people living in rural villages in India and Africa have skills, knowledge and resourcefulness to make their communities self-sufficient even though they don't have formal education and advanced degrees.

Roy is the founder of Barefoot College, which he calls "a place of learning and unlearning: where the teacher is the learner and the learner is the teacher." He founded the college in an old hospital in the village of Tilonia, a two-hour drive west of Jaipur, India, in 1972. In 1986, he relocated the campus to a nearby site and with help of an illiterate farmer who had learned principles of architecture and engineering by working and thinking about gravity, pressure and design. In a talk at, Roy explains that the college campus is fully solar electrified, rainwater is stored in underground tanks for availability in droughts, and local women made the roofs waterproof with a technology they refused to share with men.

"I had a very elitist, snobbish, expensive education in India that almost destroyed me," Roy explains, so he side-stepped the upper class career his family envisioned, and went to live in impoverished villages. There he realized the very poor - more than 40 percent of India's population lives below the international poverty level - have knowledge and ingenuity that goes unrecognized. The Barefoot College model rests on the idea that poverty problems can be addressed through peer-to-peer learning that discovers wisdom within the community rather than instruction from outside experts and educators. Children who tend animals all day can come to learn at night. Kids who participate in the democratic process elected a 12-year-old prime minister. She and her cabinet supervise 150 schools for 700 children. Puppets are ued to communicate with children and adults. "They are made of recycled World Bank reports," Roy wisecracks.

A story in Wired Magazine by Greg Williams reports there are now 24 colleges in India inspired by the Barefoot model, and the college has trained 15,000 women from India, Africa, and Bhutan, Afghanistan, Bolivia and Haiti in skills that include solar engineering, health care, and water testing and purification. Roy estimates that in India alone, Barefoot solar electrification has saved two million litres of kerosene every year. Kerosene strains family budgets and produces unhealthy fumes. Women who speak different languages learn solar engineering through visuals, color coding, diagrams, and body language. A woman from Ladakh in northern India said solar electricity meant it was the first time he had seen her husband's face in winter.

Roy says the college focuses on training women because men are more restless, and when their skills improve they leave their villages to earn more money. Women learn their skills to work for family and community. He adds many are transformed by their education and mission: "They come as grandmothers and go back like tigers," he says.

Note: Our friend Monique Sternin, who pioneered Positive Deviance with her husband the late Jerry Sternin, alerted us to this inspiring TED talk.

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