Susanna Huis grins, then breaks out into barely-controlled laughter. The 49-year-old Namibian can’t quite believe that she’s in India learning how to solder bits of electrical wire together to make a solar-powered lamp — finding the situation absurd. A little over three weeks ago, Susanna set off for Tilonia, Rajasthan, from her small farm in Tsaurob, a village in eastern Namibia, not knowing what to expect. “A man had come and said we must go to India to learn how we can have light,” she says in broken English, “Now I’m training to be a solar engineer.” The mother of five gingerly prods a lamp she has been working on and laughs again, “It’s good.”
Along with about 30 other women from all over Africa, Susanna is part of the Barefoot College NGO’s ‘solar engineer’ programme, which teaches semi-literate and illiterate women from the continent’s rural communities how to build and maintain solar power sources. After a six-month instructional course in Tilonia, the women head back to their homes — armed with equipment and tools provided by the college — to set up solar electricity in their villages and teach others what they have learned. Since the initiative’s inception in 2004, over 115 women have been trained and over 5500 houses have been electrified — in over 15 African countries, from Gambia to Mozambique. The latest training sessions began in early March.
48-year-old Christa Uises sits beside Susanna at the Barefoot workshop, soldering. Like Susanna, she is from a farm in an east Namibian village, Iharuxaams, and the two speak the same language, Khoekhoe. The two have become fast friends and joke as they set to work. Christa says she signed on for the programme because she wants to “teach others [what we’re learning here] for a better future back home.” Like Susanna, she bursts into laughter as she suddenly remembers where she has come from and where she is now. Settling down, she adds, “I remember everything I do every day — I’ve come here for an aim! Our lives will be changed.” She phones her four daughters and son back home “every so often” and says that they were the ones who encouraged her to attend the college. “My kids said they wanted me [to come] here. They said six months isn’t much [time] and I would be helping us all. No one from our community has ever been out[side] of Namibia.”
Susanna breaks in, bringing up the flight over to India — the first time either had been in an airplane. “We were on three flights, we went over two seas! The clouds were down on the ground!” The pair say that while language doesn’t pose any problems because the instruction guide they’re working from has clear illustrations — and their teacher demonstrates how to work the equipment to them — the one thing they miss from back home is meat: “I’m so hungry!” chortles Susanna.
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