Video courtesy of Barefoot College
We traveled there and met Ram Niwas, Barefoot Communicator, who led us to the communications area, where I was stunned to see a room full of people made of puppets. String puppets with wooden heads, giant puppet lanterns, paper mache hand puppets, and multicolored masks, all depicting a diverse array of characters, covered the walls of the room, while 4 men sat on the floor with traditional Rajasthani instruments, including a dholak, harmonium, cymbals, and a ghatam. In addition to the puppets, Barefoot uses silk screen for print media, their video, and low-power community radio to communicate their messages.
Ram introduced Joking Chachaji (uncle), a lively old puppet, dancing to the music. Chachaji asked, “do you know how old I am?” “No,” we replied. “I am 365 years old!”, said Chachaji. “Do you believe me?”, he continued. “No!” we replied. “Ah!” Chachaji chuckled. “You’re right! It is not about age, it is about experience!”
Started in 1972 on the premise that the solutions to rural problems lie within the community, Barefoot College redefines education, offering practical knowledge and skills-training to rural women and men. Barefoot college uses experiential learning as a tool to create “barefoot professionals”: we met a female barefoot dentist who treats local residents for cavities, fillings, and more, and a barefoot doctor who runs a pathology lab. He works with 6 other barefoot doctors, and one doctor who holds a degree in medicine from an accredited institution. Together, they treat people homeopathically, biochemically, and allopathically for a variety of illnesses. We met barefoot carpenters making toys for children, barefoot weavers, sewers, and notebook makers.
As Ram Niwas described to us, at Barefoot College, people are learning from each other, and in the village, people are learning from puppets. The puppets discuss important issues, including the caste system, bribery, water harvesting, children’s rights, and women’s empowerment. The cast of characters included a policeman to help demystify corruption, educated people and poor people, doctors to talk about health and nutrition, and, of course, Chachaji.. Unfortunately, we learned, it is still a struggle for women to be puppeteers, because they cannot travel at night, and because they always have to keep their faces covered. The puppeteers deal with it by having Bua (aunt), a female puppet, talk about issues of women’s empowerment.
During our visit with the puppets, Ram Niwas was asked to describe major changes that he’s seen because of their work. His face lit up as he told the story of Chachaji’s visit to a village several years ago, to meet with a group of laboring women. Chachaji asked the group, “does anybody know about the minimum wage?” At the time, the minimum wage was Rs 7, but the women were being paid only Rs 2-3 per day for government work.
“You have rights!” Chachaji said. The women began to question their pay, and as they learned, they began to organize. Over time, 700 women laborers came together and approached Barefoot College for help writing a petition. Their case resulted in a landmark Supreme Court ruling mandating that the local government fairly compensate workers.
Today, Ram Niwas says, everybody in Rajasthan knows that the minimum wage is Rs 100 ($2.10) per day. We had the fortune, later in the day, to meet the woman who spearheaded these efforts. Nothri is a local heroine, and remains a true advocate for laborers, working side by side with them.
After visiting with Ram and the puppets, we ate a delicious lunch of dal, rice, and cauliflower, all cooked (by men!) using a solar cooker. The parabolic cookers are a work of art, made from broken mirrors tied together with metal that direct the sun towards the stove top, and a used bike gear clock that keeps the reflector in line with the sun. We met a small group of women building the solar cookers – barefoot solar engineers. While the cookers were beautiful, we were left wondering if there might be an easier way to harness the sun that is still culturally appropriate.
Walking around the campus, we encountered a group of women from Cameroon sitting outside, and we entered a classroom filled with women representing villages across Africa. In Tilonia to learn how to construct and repair solar lamps, these women are 1/3 of the way through a six month training. They smiled broadly, confident that they will be welcomed as heroines when they return home, bringing the first electricity to their villages – and thus allowing people to increase their income by working at night, children to finish their homework, and women to safely travel outside. Within minutes, the room was abuzz with members of our delegation having conversations with this other group of delegates in French, English, Hindi, Swahili, and Portuguese.
I was reminded of the experience and knowledge held within our group, listening to the many languages that we speak, and the unique perspective that each of us brings to the delegation. In these final days of our learning exchange, we step back with open hearts and minds to the present moment of this experience. Each of us is on a personal journey that will deeply impact the work that we do in the world, whatever and wherever that may be.
Navina Khanna is a community organizer committed to transforming the food system into one that is ecologically and socially just. She has spent over ten years working toward food systems reform as an educator, organizer, and advocate, and has trained dozens of parents, teachers, and teenagers to organize their own communities for food justice. Her work has included implementing programs to increase low-income families’ access to affordable, fresh, healthy foods, working and teaching on traditional and organic farms in India and the US, teaching youth about ecology and ecological restoration, and most recently, organizing community residents to develop a plan for citywide food systems reform with the HOPE Collaborative (Health for Oakland’s People and Environment). Navina has an MS in International Agricultural Development from UC Davis, where she developed curriculum for the first undergraduate major in sustainable agriculture and food systems at a Land-Grant University. She is also a certified Vinyasa yoga teacher and permaculturalist, and loves to play outside. Navina is currently building a movement with young people across the US to shape a radically different food system through policy and practice.
This is part of a series entitled From The Fields which follows WEA’s Women and Agriculture delegation on their 10 day journey through Northern India. Read more about this initiative here.