The Austin Chronicle

Who Loves the Sun

By Jessi Cape, November 5, 2012, 9:48am, Picture in Picture

Independent Lens, PBS’ Emmy Award winning series, continues tonight with Solar Mamas, an impressive new documentary about women training to be solar energy engineers in India.

Part of the Why Poverty? project and Women and Girls Lead, Solar Mamas is an inspirational film that examines the revolutionary solar engineering program of India’s Barefoot College. Independent filmmakers Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim (Control Room) co-directed the film, which follows a Jordanian mother of four named Rafea and her classmates on their transformative journeys.

Socioeconomic, geographic, and cultural factors are but a few of the obstacles facing hundreds of millions of women seeking education across the globe. Statistics indicate that by providing education and skills for a woman an entire village can develop the means to escape many traps of poverty. Microcredit and community centers that allow free access to vocational training have proven enormously successful in many developing countries. Barefoot College (, an NGO founded in 1972, seeks to provide empowerment to rural women through sustainable solutions that improve living conditions, health, environment, and community.

In Solar Mamas, 27 women are selected from countries such as Guatemala, Kenya, and Colombia to participate in Barefoot College’s six-month job training program in India that will teach them how to build solar energy circuit boards. Post skill acquisition, the women may participate in programs that equip them with supplies to accompany their newfound knowledge so that they may bring solar-powered light and energy to their poor and rural villages. Further, entrepreneurial opportunities become possible and these new businesses allow the women and their community to begin the ascent from abject poverty that habitually cycles through generations. Rafea is a Jordanian mother of four girls and she lives in a village of approximately 300 people, housed in traditional desert tents and most all unemployed. Battling her Eastern culture’s norms and her Bedouin husband’s distaste for her enlightenment, Rafea struggles to complete the course.

Many of the women in this program are illiterate. Many have never before left their village. Many belong to cultures that frown upon female education and work outside of the home. In addition to their inquisitive minds and deeply rooted desire for happiness, the women’s patience and sheltered existence are precisely why the participants are hand-selected. Their skill sets will stay within the village to improve life for anyone willing to learn. Their fresh perspective on life in other cultures opens doors and the women share the knowledge. Their belief in a better life for themselves and their children inspires widespread change from the ground up. Their success positively changes oppressive opinions.

Solar Mamas is a wonderful, albeit brief, glimpse into unfamiliar ways of life of women across many cultural divides. The film not only tracks the program’s progress but also presents an interesting view of the internal struggles that most of the Barefoot College students face. Rafea’s adventurous spirit, bright personality, and capable mind encapsulate the endless potential of women across the globe who will flourish if given only a small chance.

Solar Mamas airs on KLRU at 9pm tonight (11/5). It will also be screened at the Windsor Park Branch Library (5833 Westminster Dr.) on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 7pm, as part of KLRU’s free Community Cinema program.

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