The Barefoot College in India was started in 1975 by a wealthy, privileged Indian, Bunker Roy, who attended the most expensive schools in India and then, to his family's dismay, announced he wanted to live in a rural Indian village for five years and dig wells.
This experience taught him that you don't look for solutions to problems outside the community. If you listen to the people, the solutions are in front of you.
Based on the premise that if you gather the poorest illiterate women from small villages all over the world and teach them about water quality, health and solar power, they will return and help their people. The courses are taught through drawings, body language, sign language and hands-on learning.
"Solar Mamas," a documentary by Jehane Noujaim, films the story of a Jordanian woman, Rafea, chosen by the Jordanian Minister of Environment to attend the Barefoot College solar energy course in India. The course is six months long. Rafea is her husband's second wife and has four children by him. On occasion the husband visits her but pays nothing for support. Rafea has a strong desire to become educated, enabling her to earn a better living, and despite misgivings about leaving her children, she accepts the opportunity to learn.
The camera follows her to the college campus and depicts the education these women receive: manufacturing their own circuit boards, wiring a house, building a solar collector. The world outside their villages is a revelation to these women. As Rafea says, "I've gotten used to a life that isn't mine."
"Solar Mamas" is also about being a mama, about often choosing between what her husband wants her to do, and what she feels she needs to do for herself and her children. It is a cultural tug-of-war. Weeks into the program, Rafea's husband calls her 10 times a day begging her to return, or he will take her daughters to his first wife, and Rafea will not see them again. Then, he calls to say one daughter is ill and needs her mother. Rafea withdraws and returns home.
Two months later, Rafea finds the strength to stand up against the pleas of her husband, mother and children to stay at home, and asks the Minister of Environment to please reinstate her in the class; he does. With help from the other women, she graduates, returns to Jordan and engineers the first electrical house in her village. Enthusiastically, the men rally to start a company to generate electricity. Only men run the company. Rafea, however, is allowed to teach women how to do the work.
"Solar Mamas" is a fascinating documentary of cultural differences, but also one of hope.