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Jagriti Yatra Day 14: Barefoot College and Bunker Roy

“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 wears black toms and a simple kurta. He spoke before the Yatris on Monday, their last role model of the 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 their journey, the Yatris soaked it 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 Rajistan. Barefoot College, founded by Bunker Roy at the ripe young age of 24, is located in Tilonia, Rajistan. 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. They started with water because the region was drought prone. Then from there they started working on the problem of water borne illnesses. They needed to teach people about the risks of unhealthy water and therefore found themselves working in education as well. They founded 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 livlihoods: training women from around the world by doing. We got to meet some of these women, women from Panama, Nepal, Togo, Brazil all crowded around the same table making solar panels. They have all come from their respective countries to Barefoot for 6 months to become solar engineers. Currently 37 women from 11 countries are on campus. Though they do not speak the same languages, the women learn together by watching examples and practicing. All of the women are illiterate or semi-literate. At the end of 6 months they will return to their home countries. There some will start enterprises producing solar technology, others will electrify their villages, 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 and man and he will not. 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. Much of the school’s operations are funded by the government. The department of renewable energy pays for the transportation and training of these international women, for example. Aarti Devi, a woman who was staying in my compartment on the train, works at the Barefoot radio station. She researches, edits and announces the news to the area on the radio everyday. From local news to farming tips, the radio provides valuable information to the surrounding residents of Tilonia. They day ended in a shopping frenzy as Yatris expressed their awe for Barefoot with their wallets in the handicrafts store. The visit was one of the highlights of the journey and the Yatris headed off to Ahmedabad excited for the end of the Yatra, hot showers and a visit with Ghandi.