The women come to India's Barefoot College from villages in Fiji, Peru, Rwanda, and beyond. They arrive largely unschooled and leave six months later as solar engineers, ready to electrify their worlds.
"Chai time." The tea is black, with lots of milk and sugar and a pinch of ginger and cardamom. It's well caffeinated, to get the students from Africa, South America, and Oceania through another eight-hour workday in the dry heat of northern India. The teachers—all locals—pour their chai into chipped cups hardly bigger than shot glasses. The Fijians use metal cups, maybe 12 ounces each. The Peruvians generally do not drink tea, because they suspect they are getting bigger from lack of exercise. The two women from Benin take their tea in quart-size, pink plastic pails originally intended for bathing, and they each stir in three tablespoons of sugar.
Again, teacher Manna Sharma says, "Chai time." But Miriama Moceiwasa, from Fiji, waves her off with a wire clipper, points to her malfunctioning lantern, and, in her limited English, says, "Make light."
There's a feeling of urgency in the classroom. Moceiwasa can sense it in the way the teachers test, bundle, and pack up the solar lights as soon as they're constructed. Over the past four days the students have built more than 600 of them, but Moceiwasa guesses that there's room in the boxes for more. Next week the lights will be shipped to the Liberian villages of eight former students.
Moceiwasa strips red insulation off an end of an electrical wire. Inside, there's another wire—thinner, copper, multi-stranded. Around the copper, she twists a soldering wire, which she then melts with a soldering iron to join the copper strands. She does the same with a black wire, then holds up both wires. "Red, positive. Black, negative," she explains, and connects them to a circuit board. The melting metal smells lousy, like burned hair spray.
I point to a resistor on a circuit board and ask her what it does.
She points to the same resistor and says, "It goes here."
Bahgwat Nandan, the coordinator of the solar program at the Barefoot College, later says, "Why does the solar light work? What scientific principles does it use? I still don't know. But it works."
Since 2004, the Barefoot College, in Tilonia, India, has trained about 250 illiterate and semiliterate women from rural, unelectrified villages in 41 countries to be solar engineers. After six months of training, these women have provided more than 15,500 houses with solar electricity in their home countries. The government of India covers all expenses—245,000 rupees (about $4,400) per woman, plus airfare. The college has trained an additional 700 men and women from rural India, including Moceiwasa's teachers.
The 34 students in Moceiwasa's class—all women—come from eight countries and have 137 children between them. On average, each has about six years of formal education. Seven of them can't read.
When she finally does take her tea, Moceiwasa brings it back to her stool at the end of one of the long worktables in the cinder block classroom. As she works, sweat rolls behind where her glasses meet her ears. She hunches over. It's May, one of the hottest and driest months in Tilonia. Today it is 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
Moceiwasa tests her light with a voltmeter, connecting a black wire to a black wire and a red to a red. But the light does not turn on.
So she frowns, finishes her tea, points to my empty chai cup, and says, "I take it, my daughter." Then she gets up and rinses my cup.
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