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Bunker Roy: Learning from a barefoot movement

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I'd like to take you to another world. And I'd like to share a 45 year-old love story with the poor, living on less than one dollar a day. I went to a very elitist, snobbish, expensive education in India, and that almost destroyed me. I was all set to be a diplomat, teacher, doctor -- all laid out. Then, I don't look it, but I was the Indian national squash champion for three years. (Laughter) The whole world was laid out for me. Everything was at my feet. I could do nothing wrong. And then I thought out of curiosity I'd like to go and live and work and just see what a village is like.

So in 1965, I went to what was called the worst Bihar famine in India, and I saw starvation, death, people dying of hunger, for the first time. It changed my life. I came back home, told my mother, "I'd like to live and work in a village." Mother went into a coma. (Laughter) "What is this? The whole world is laid out for you, the best jobs are laid out for you, and you want to go and work in a village? I mean, is there something wrong with you?" I said, "No, I've got the best eduction. It made me think. And I wanted to give something back in my own way." "What do you want to do in a village? No job, no money, no security, no prospect." I said, "I want to live and dig wells for five years." "Dig wells for five years? You went to the most expensive school and college in India, and you want to dig wells for five years?" She didn't speak to me for a very long time, because she thought I'd let my family down.

But then, I was exposed to the most extraordinary knowledge and skills that very poor people have, which are never brought into the mainstream -- which is never identified, respected, applied on a large scale. And I thought I'd start a Barefoot College -- college only for the poor. What the poor thought was important would be reflected in the college. I went to this village for the first time. Elders came to me and said, "Are you running from the police?" I said, "No." (Laughter) "You failed in your exam?" I said, "No." "You didn't get a government job?" I said, "No." "What are you doing here? Why are you here? The education system in India makes you look at Paris and New Delhi and Zurich; what are you doing in this village? Is there something wrong with you you're not telling us?" I said, "No, I want to actually start a college only for the poor. What the poor thought was important would be reflected in the college."

So the elders gave me some very sound and profound advice. They said, "Please, don't bring anyone with a degree and qualification into your college." So it's the only college in India where, if you should have a Ph.D. or a Master's, you are disqualified to come. You have to be a cop-out or a wash-out or a dropout to come to our college. You have to work with your hands. You have to have a dignity of labor. You have to show that you have a skill that you can offer to the community and provide a service to the community. So we started the Barefoot College, and we redefined professionalism.

Who is a professional? A professional is someone who has a combination of competence, confidence and belief. A water diviner is a professional. A traditional midwife is a professional. A traditional bone setter is a professional. These are professionals all over the world. You find them in any inaccessible village around the world. And we thought that these people should come into the mainstream and show that the knowledge and skills that they have is universal. It needs to be used, needs to be applied, needs to be shown to the world outside -- that these knowledge and skills are relevant even today.

So the college works following the lifestyle and workstyle of Mahatma Gandhi. You eat on the floor, you sleep on the floor, you work on the floor. There are no contracts, no written contracts. You can stay with me for 20 years, go tomorrow. And no one can get more than $100 a month. You come for the money, you don't come to Barefoot College. You come for the work and the challenge, you'll come to the Barefoot College. That is where we want you to try crazy ideas. Whatever idea you have, come and try it. It doesn't matter if you fail. Battered, bruised, you start again. It's the only college where the teacher is the learner and the learner is the teacher. And it's the only college where we don't give a certificate. You are certified by the community you serve. You don't need a paper to hang on the wall to show that you are an engineer.

So when I said that, they said, "Well show us what is possible. What are you doing? This is all mumbo-jumbo if you can't show it on the ground." So we built the first Barefoot College in 1986. It was built by 12 Barefoot architects who can't read and write, built on $1.50 a sq. ft. 150 people lived there, worked there. They got the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2002. But then they suspected, they thought there was an architect behind it. I said, "Yes, they made the blueprints, but the Barefoot architects actually constructed the college." We are the only ones who actually returned the award for $50,000, because they didn't believe us, and we thought that they were actually casting aspersions on the Barefoot architects of Tilonia.

I asked a forester -- high-powered, paper-qualified expert -- I said, "What can you build in this place?" He had one look at the soil and said, "Forget it. No way. Not even worth it. No water, rocky soil." I was in a bit of a spot. And I said, "Okay, I'll go to the old man in village and say, 'What should I grow in this spot?'" He looked quietly at me and said, "You build this, you build this, you put this, and it'll work." This is what it looks like today.

Went to the roof, and all the women said, "Clear out. The men should clear out because we don't want to share this technology with the men. This is waterproofing the roof." (Laughter) It is a bit of jaggery, a bit of urens and a bit of other things I don't know. But it actually doesn't leak. Since 1986, it hasn't leaked. This technology, the women will not share with the men.


It's the only college which is fully solar-electrified. All the power comes from the sun. 45 kilowatts of panels on the roof. And everything works off the sun for the next 25 years. So long as the sun shines, we'll have no problem with power. But the beauty is that is was installed by a priest, a Hindu priest, who's only done eight years of primary schooling -- never been to school, never been to college. He knows more about solar than anyone I know anywhere in the world guaranteed.

Food, if you come to the Barefoot College, is solar cooked. But the people who fabricated that solar cooker are women, illiterate women, who actually fabricate the most sophisticated solar cooker. It's a parabolic Scheffler solar cooker. Unfortunately, they're almost half German, they're so precise. (Laughter) You'll never find Indian women so precise. Absolutely to the last inch, they can make that cooker. And we have 60 meals twice a day of solar cooking.

We have a dentist -- she's a grandmother, illiterate, who's a dentist. She actually looks after the teeth of 7,000 children. Barefoot technology: this was 1986 -- no engineer, no architect thought of it -- but we are collecting rainwater from the roofs. Very little water is wasted. All the roofs are connected underground to a 400,000 liter tank, and no water is wasted. If we have four years of drought, we still have water on the campus, because we collect rainwater.

60 percent of children don't go to school, because they have to look after animals -- sheep, goats -- domestic chores. So we thought of starting a school at night for the children. Because the night schools of Tilonia, over 75,000 children have gone through these night schools. Because it's for the convenience of the child; it's not for the convenience of the teacher. And what do we teach in these schools? Democracy, citizenship, how you should measure your land, what you should do if you're arrested, what you should do if your animal is sick. This is what we teach in the night schools. But all the schools are solar-lit.

Every five years we have an election. Between six to 14 year-old children participate in a democratic process, and they elect a prime minister. The prime minister is 12 years old. She looks after 20 goats in the morning, but she's prime minister in the evening. She has a cabinet, a minister of education, a minister for energy, a minister for health. And they actually monitor and supervise 150 schools for 7,000 children. She got the World's Children's Prize five years ago, and she went to Sweden. First time ever going out of her village. Never seen Sweden. Wasn't dazzled at all by what was happening. And the Queen of Sweden, who's there, turned to me and said, "Can you ask this child where she got her confidence from? She's only 12 years old, and she's not dazzled by anything." And the girl, who's on her left, turned to me and looked at the queen straight in the eye and said, "Please tell her I'm the prime minister."



Where the percentage of illiteracy is very high, we use puppetry. Puppets is the way we communicate. You have Jokhim Chacha who is 300 years old. He is my psychoanalyst. He is my teacher. He's my doctor. He's my lawyer. He's my donor. He actually raises money, solves my disputes. He solves my problems in the village. If there's tension in the village, if attendance at the schools goes down and there's a friction between the teacher and the parent, the puppet calls the teacher and the parent in front of the whole village and says, "Shake hands. The attendance must not drop." These puppets are made out of recycled World Bank reports.



So this decentralized, demystified approach of solar-electrifying villages, we've covered all over India from Ladakh up to Bhutan -- all solar-electrified villages by people who have been trained. And we went to Ladakh, and we asked this woman -- this, at minus 40, you have to come out of the roof, because there's no place, it was all snowed up on both sides -- and we asked this woman, "What was the benefit you had from solar electricity?" And she thought for a minute and said, "It's the first time I can see my husband's face in winter."


Went to Afghanistan. One lesson we learned in India was men are untrainable. (Laughter) Men are restless, men are ambitious, men are compulsively mobile, and they all want a certificate. (Laughter) All across the globe, you have this tendency of men wanting a certificate. Why? Because they want to leave the village and go to a city, looking for a job. So we came up with a great solution: train grandmothers. What's the best way of communicating in the world today? Television? No. Telegraph? No. Telephone? No. Tell a woman.



So we went to Afghanistan for the first time, and we picked three women and said, "We want to take them to India." They said, "Impossible. They don't even go out of their rooms, and you want to take them to India." I said, "I'll make a concession. I'll take the husbands along as well." So I took the husbands along. Of course, the women were much more intelligent than the men. In six months, how do we train these women? Sign language. You don't choose the written word. You don't choose the spoken word. You use sign language. And in six months they can become solar engineers. They go back and solar-electrify their own village.

This woman went back and solar-electrified the first village, set up a workshop -- the first village ever to be solar-electrified in Afghanistan [was] by the three women. This woman is an extraordinary grandmother. 55 years old, and she's solar-electrified 200 houses for me in Afghanistan. And they haven't collapsed. She actually went and spoke to an engineering department in Afghanistan and told the head of the department the difference between AC and DC. He didn't know. Those three women have trained 27 more women and solar-electrified 100 villages in Afghanistan.

We went to Africa, and we did the same thing. All these women sitting at one table from eight, nine countries, all chatting to each other, not understanding a word, because they're all speaking a different language. But their body language is great. They're speaking to each other and actually becoming solar engineers. I went to Sierra Leone, and there was this minister driving down in the dead of night -- comes across this village. Comes back, goes into the village, says, "Well what's the story?" They said, "These two grandmothers ... " "Grandmothers?" The minister couldn't believe what was happening. "Where did they go?" "Went to India and back." Went straight to the president. He said, "Do you know there's a solar-electrified village in Sierra Leone?" He said, "No." Half the cabinet went to see the grandmothers the next day. "What's the story." So he summoned me and said, "Can you train me 150 grandmothers?" I said, "I can't, Mr. President. But they will. The grandmothers will." So he built me the first Barefoot training center in Sierra Leone. And 150 grandmothers have been trained in Sierra Leone.

Gambia: we went to select a grandmother in Gambia. Went to this village. I knew which woman I would like to take. The community got together and said, "Take these two women." I said, "No, I want to take this woman." They said, "Why? She doesn't know the language. You don't know her." I said, "I like the body language. I like the way she speaks." "Difficult husband; not possible." Called the husband, the husband came, swaggering, politician, mobile in his hand. "Not possible." "Why not?" "The woman, look how beautiful she is." I said, "Yeah, she is very beautiful." "What happens if she runs off with an Indian man?" That was his biggest fear. I said, "She'll be happy. She'll ring you up on the mobile." She went like a grandmother and came back like a tiger. She walked out of the plane and spoke to the whole press as if she was a veteran. She handled the national press, and she was a star. And when I went back six months later, I said, "Where's your husband?" "Oh, somewhere. It doesn't matter." (Laughter) Success story.



I'll just wind up by saying that I think you don't have to look for solutions outside. Look for solutions within. And listen to people. They have the solutions in front of you. They're all over the world. Don't even worry. Don't listen to the World Bank, listen to the people on the ground. They have all the solutions in the world.

I'll end with a quotation by Mahatma Gandhi. "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win."

Thank you.


Video Details

Duration: 18 minutes and 47 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 1,112
Posted by: tedtalks on Oct 17, 2011

In Rajasthan, India, an extraordinary school teaches rural women and men -- many of them illiterate -- to become solar engineers, artisans, dentists and doctors in their own villages. It's called the Barefoot College, and its founder, Bunker Roy, explains how it works.

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