Chintan Girish Modi
The stars that welcomed me into Tilonia were so close I felt they were looking back at me. Had I watched their warmth slowly waft into my eyes, I might have seen a glimpse of what Tilonia held for me in the three days I was to spend there.
I woke up to a quiet morning, with a simple breakfast, and initiation into the post-meal ritual at Barefoot College – carrying one’s plate to the hand pump, throwing leftovers into a corner for dogs, placing the plate below the spout, waiting for someone to pump out water, and gently washing one’s plate with the detergent powder placed beside.
I was introduced to Ramnivasji, who offered to take me on a tour of the various sections in the college, and answered my many queries.
We first met two young village women, both part of a group that runs the Women Barefoot Solar Cooker Engineers Society. The group consists of semi-literate and literate women from small villages who have learnt to make parabolic solar cookers that use the energy of sunlight falling on mirrors to cook food. Their ‘guruji’ is Wolfgang Scheffler who lives in Germany, and spends some of his time travelling to other countries and sharing his expertise.
The women take great pride in their work. Apart from being able to engage themselves in work outside the home, they have also become skilled at metal craft – fabricating cookers using precise measurements by bending, welding and cutting – which has traditionally been the domain of men.
Barefoot College, which was started by Bunker Roy in 1972, has done exemplary work in generating solar energy, propagating its use, and training people from disadvantaged communities in India and other parts of the world to benefit from this alternative energy source. There is a remarkable synergy between local Marwari women and women from poor African countries; the former sharing what they have learnt as Barefoot Solar Engineers, the latter devoting six months of their life to staying in a country far away from their own in order to learn how they can make the most of the sun in their own circumstances.
My favourite part of the first day was meeting Maangi bai. She has never been to school, but trains young girls to use computers. She began her work with Barefoot College as a handicraft person, went on to participate actively in the work of women’s groups, helped out with educational programmes, and is now chiefly associated with the computer training section.
Maangi bai knows hardly any English, but has taught herself to use the English keyboard. A cardboard chart by her side shows the correspondences between the Devanagari (Hindi) alphabet and the English characters. A visitor from England who happened to learn about this wondered why Maangi bai doesn’t use a Hindi keyboard. Maangi bai simply said, “This is what we have got, and we are happy with this.” The visitor was amazed, and she muttered, “I am useless. You are incredible.” Maangi bai also trains women from poor African countries to use the computer. The African women know a bit of English; Maangi bai speaks only Hindi and Marwari, but she has taught herself to use the computer. Here too one discerns a wonderful synergy. The African women pick up computer skills; Maangi bai picks up a bit of English. When spoken language seems a hurdle, Maangi bai simply uses her finger to point out where the cursor should be moved using the mouse.
Barefoot College is full of such amazing stories. There is Raghav Mahto, a 23-year-old from Vaishali in Bihar, who used to fiddle with wires and microphones while putting up shamianas for wedding functions, and learnt to make a radio. He now runs a community radio station at Barefoot College.
Women with no formal qualifications work as ‘barefoot dentists’ here. They not only share tips about dental hygiene with children, but also clean tartar and carry out tooth extraction for adults living on campus and visiting from outside. A doctor providing allopathy and homoeopathy medicines, and a pathology laboratory run by barefoot technicians are among the other services available here.
Men who have no degree or diploma in media and communication studies have learnt on the job and become ‘barefoot photographers’, ‘barefoot filmmakers’, and ‘barefoot communicators’. The last of the three is a term used to designate a group of puppeteers on campus who spend their time making puppets, playing music, and creating skits to generate awareness and facilitate discussion around local issues by travelling to night schools and presenting shows on other important occasions.
While Rajasthan is famous for its traditional wooden puppets called kathputlis, the barefoot communicators here prefer papier mache puppets since they can be made from waste paper which is easily available and does not involve cutting of trees. I expressed a desire to learn how to make puppets, and my request was readily accepted. What I love about Barefoot College is their openness to learning from whoever comes to share, and their readiness/willingness to share with whoever comes to learn.
I learnt how bits of newspaper soaked for about 12 hours crushed and beaten into pulp, later mixed with the powder of methi seeds, are used to make beautiful puppets. Working with my hands was a delightful experience, especially because I am not so used to it. I realized how much patience and discipline the entire process requires. We are so used to buying things at stores that we are disconnected from what goes into their making before they land up on shelves to be picked up from. My stay at Barefoot College gave me a new found respect for people who work with their hands, who feel their work in their bones.
Punarji, who was helping me learn about puppets, made a remarkable observation. He held out a piece of newspaper, and said, “People usually read this and throw it away. We internalize the essence of the story before crushing this piece of paper, and then use it to make puppets that can share the same story with hundreds of people.” Barefoot communicators present plays focusing on themes such as children’s rights, drinking water, health and hygiene, violence against women, caste discrimination, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, etc.
I also enjoyed the kabaad-se-jugaad section very much. So ingenious! Shapes of numbers and letters of the alphabet cut out from discarded slippers. Boxes, toothpaste tubes, and other things that are usually chucked into the trash of urban households were being shaped into toys for night schools and village crèches. Torn files and folders being refashioned into dustbins. Old newspapers being recycled into eco-friendly bags. Scrap cloth from the handicrafts unit being used to make attractive covers for notepads. Seeing all of this has prompted me to rethink what we consider as waste. There is so much we can reuse or recycle, but we chose to throw it away, and buy new things, which in turn makes us want to earn more so that we can spend more.
At the wood work section, I saw this interesting balance/weighing scale with a stand in the middle, and digits from 1 to 10 on either side. On one side, a metal ring was placed on number 10. On the other side, one could try varying combinations of numbers that would add up to 10. For example: 4+6, 5+5, 3+7, etc. If the chosen numbers did not add up to 10, the scale would tilt to one side, and not be balanced. This can be used as a learning aid in schools, especially to teach addition of numbers. The teacher need not be physically present around the student at all times; the student can check for himself if he/she has added correctly or not.
While I found myself getting interested in much of what was happening at Barefoot College, I wished to explore more in the area of education, particularly their night school programme. Rameshwarji kindly agreed to take me on a day-long tour through far flung villages, helping me get a sense of the different things they do.
First, we visited a balwadi at Mordi Khurd village, where children between the ages of one to five learn about health and hygiene, sing songs, play games, participate in physical exercises, and spend time doing whatever else they like, under the supervision of a teacher identified from within the community and trained by Barefoot College. Girls who attend the night school at Mordi Khurd are trained in stitching and sewing in the same premises.
Our next stop was a school in Naanan village, where we came across another bunch of girls busy with their sewing machines. There we met Salma who has previously been Health Minister in the Children’s Parliament, an initiative that grew out of the night school programme, aiming to introduce children to the electoral process and allowing them to experience democracy in a real, alive manner through collective decision-making and accountability. The members of this Parliament are elected by the night school children from among themselves. Salma shares how members of Parliament make visits to schools in other areas, take notes about things that need improvement, give warnings to irregular teachers, and share their observations from visits in meetings with other members.
The evening was spent with children at Singla where the education office of Barefoot College operates from. They’ve been enrolled for a six-month residential ‘bridge course’ meant for children who left school after Standard 1 or 2, but are now keen on getting back to studies. A special set of books produced for the night schools (integrating art, math, language, and environmental studies) shared space with bilingual books from Tulika Publishers and simple stories from Pratham Books.
The children were a bit shy at first, but gradually got comfortable. Republic Day was just two days away, and they had a host of songs prepared for the occasion. Some were sung for me, interspersed with poems taught by their teachers. I found much warmth there, even a lovingly cooked meal, and goodbyes from children who asked me to travel safely and reach well.
Our last stop for the day was a night school at Thal village, the most memorable experience of my visit to Barefoot College. This is one of around 150 night schools run by Barefoot College in the numerous villages of Rajasthan. It starts at 6 pm and ends at 9 pm. Most of the children who come here are girls, since boys do get the chance to go to day schools. Rameshwarji asks the children to tell me what they do during the day. Some spend their day grazing goats, sheep or cows. Others have to chase away peacocks that threaten to disturb their crop. Yet others, especially girls, stay home to take care of younger siblings. It was amazing to see their energy and enthusiasm at the end of the day. The night holds a special meaning in their lives. It is when the solar lanterns in their little room spread light on the wall, and the ground they sit on. A time for them to sit with children their own age, when laughter passes around quite playfully, unstressed by the chores that tomorrow will bring. I am reminded of the stars that welcomed me into Tilonia. I can see them again in these eyes.
How to get there
The nearest town is Kishangarh, about half an hour by bus from Ajmer. Jeeps from Kishangarh will take you to Tilonia, but they stop plying after dark.
The author runs People in Education, an online group that connects a diverse bunch of people committed to education, and provides a forum for sharing of resources and experiences. He can be reached at email@example.com.