“Don’t think that we are doing social work. We are doing political work. Anytime you are changing mindsets you are working in politics. If I go into a village and everyone is happy with what I’m doing, then I’m doing something wrong.”
Bunker Roy, wearing black Toms shoes and a simple kurta, spoke before the Yatris aboard the Jagriti Yatra last week. Founder of the innovative Barefoot College, he was the last role model they interacted with in this journey. He spoke of courage, integrity and simple lifestyles. He quoted Mark Twain, telling the Yatris, “Never let school interfere with your education.”
At the tail end of the Jagriti Yatra, the Yatris soaked it all in: the leafy campus, the women from far corners of the earth learning profitable skills, the simple ideology behind the man whose vision has come to fruition here in rural Rajasthan.
Jagriti Yatra, an initiative of Shashank Mani, Executive Director, consulting at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), was a 15-day journey which began in December last year with the aim of spreading the message of social enterprise. It had 450 young people on board who got the opportunity to interact with inspiring role models who have brought about a change through their entrepreneurial zeal. Barefoot College, founded by Roy at a young age of 24, is located in Tilonia, Rajasthan. Roy said when he arrived he didn’t have a plan, he didn’t have money, he didn’t have to take a survey to figure out the problems in the region.
He started with water for most logical reason: the region was drought prone. Roy started working on the problem of water borne illnesses. He needed to teach people about the risks of unhealthy water and therefore found himself working in education as well. He created several schools and started training teachers from the communities. Night school and women’s self help groups also sprouted up. From there Barefoot moved into livelihoods: training women from around the world.
We got to meet some of these women, who had come all the way from Panama, Nepal, Togo, Brazil, all crowded around the same table making solar panels. These women, who are illiterate or semi-literate, will remain in Barefoot for six months to become solar engineers. At present, 37 women from 11 countries are on campus. Though they do not speak the same language, the women learn together by watching the trainer and practicing. At the end of the six months they will return to their home countries. Once there, some will either start their own enterprises producing solar technology, others will electrify their villages, and some others will teach their skill to more women, starting Barefoots of their own.
Barefoot only trains women. Why? Women don’t want certificates; they want to help their communities. Teach a woman and she will go back and train other women. Teach a man and he will not share his skills with others. The true key to scaling up, Bunker Roy explained, is spreading your idea by teaching others and spreading the message through them.
Walking around the campus we saw women producing not only solar panels but also solar cookers, which are sold around India, low cost sanitary napkins and handicrafts. The government funds much of the school’s operations. The department of renewable energy pays for the transportation and training of these international women, for example.
Aarti Devi, a woman traveling on the train, works at the Barefoot radio station. She researches, edits and announces the news to the area on the radio every day. From local news to farming tips, the radio provides valuable information to the surrounding residents of Tilonia.
The visit was one of the highlights of the journey and the Yatris headed off to Ahmedabad where the journey officially ended with a visit to the Gandhi ashram.
Author bio: Zoe Hamilton is currently traveling on Jagriti Yatra. She is PR Lead and Program Coordinator at Jaaga.in, a creative community space in Bangalore.