The following feature article was written by Tostan field volunteer Niina Pitkänen, who met the Solar Power! Program participants at the Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport in Dakar, Senegal upon their return. Niina then accompanied one of the women, Marième Bamba, on her journey back to her home village. This is Niina’s account of their arrival in Soudiane.
The night is already dark as the car hastily rushes through maize and millet fields and puddles of water. Marième Bamba keeps her eyes fixed on the road, interpreting familiar signs on the way to her home village, Soudiane. School buildings on the right, yes, this is the right path. A turn to the left under the big baobab tree and then straight ahead. She keeps teasing Mouhammadou Diarra, one of her neighbours in the village, who has hopped in the car in the previous and larger village of Nguéniène. “Are you sure that this is definitely the right path,” she asks smiling, when Diarra hesitates at a crossing.
It was six months ago that Marième Bamba left Soudiane and began her journey towards a new phase in her life – and a new phase in the lives of her fellow villagers. She and six other Senegalese women, some of them grandmothers, travelled from their rural villages to India to be trained as solar engineers who will power their villages with solar panels and solar lanterns. They became the first women in Senegal trained as solar electrical engineers in the Barefoot College in Rajasthan, India.
Six months later, in September 2009, the seven women are back in Senegal. Exhausted by the long journey, but excited to be going home, they had the opportunity to discuss their experiences with the Family Minister within the Government of Senegal, Ndèye Khady Diop, and the Senegalese media, always smiling when welcomed back home. During the press conference, the women glowed with pride when the Minister called them dear, brave sisters. After their meeting with the Minister, the women left one another to go their separate ways to five different regions in Senegal, enthusiastic to see their families after being away for so long. It has been a great experience for these women and it will definitely be an exciting development in the lives of the women’s relatives and neighbours, when they start sharing everything they have seen and learned.
It has become clear that the learning process at the Barefoot College was really hard work. All seven women explained that it was a big challenge for them.
“First we were really discouraged when everything was so different, and we did not understand the language. Also the food they eat in India seemed inedible at first. We really thought we would not survive, but then we just got used to it,” the women’s team leader Doussou Konaté explained at the press conference. “Thanks to the Tostan training, we found a way to make the situation better. We did not complain about the food and we respected our class schedules. Later, our teachers told us that they really appreciated our decisiveness and precision with learning, and the fact that we tried our best to adapt impressed our hosts,” Doussou Konaté continued.
The Senegalese women were impressed to see how women live in other parts of the world. As they could not speak any common language with their hosts in India, the women could not communicate with words. But they spoke with their hands and gestures.
“We saw women working beside men, building houses and looking for food and water. We do not have anything like that in Senegal,” one of the women, Mame Aidara Diarra explained. She says that the biggest result of the training was that now they all understand that women like themselves can really work as solar power engineers. “We thought that this would be an occupation for men only. But now we know so much! And we can teach these [skills] to other women too. We have become teachers,” she smiles proudly, pronouncing the word teacher in clear English, though otherwise speaking Wolof.
Back in the middle of the maize fields, in the car on the way to her village, Marième’s calm posture suddenly turns into excitement. She prays silently and starts to roll down the car window. She says she did not miss her husband and four children too much during the six months because she was so concentrated and busy learning all the things they were being taught at the Barefoot College. The women were given the opportunity to telephone their relatives every week, which meant good news but some bad news as well. Marième herself received news about the deaths of two family members.
“The sorrow was easier to handle when we were so concentrated on work, on learning everything about solar panels. There really was no time to think about home too much. Also, we helped each other when someone lost a family member.”
When the car pulls in the central square of the village, Marième cannot hold back her joy. She hops out of the car and is immediately surrounded by smiling, shrieking, and laughing villagers. Relatives and neighbours run towards her, smothering her in their welcoming embraces when she approaches her home. And then, a tall man dressed in white appears. People around Marième step aside so that she can see who is approaching her, smiling from ear to ear. There is no end to Marième’s smile either when she sees her husband. He embraces her and raises his hand in sign of victory, having his wife back home again. Everyone around is crying, laughing, shrieking aloud, and dancing.
Some time later, inside her hut, Marième Bamba sits down on the floor and leans her back to the side of her bed. She breaths in deeply and sighs after finishing her first Senegalese dinner in six months. It has been a long journey, but she is home now. And the food, it tastes just delicious, she says, a smile still in her tired eyes.
She looks at the small LED flashlight pinned up on the wall of the hut. Soon, inchallah, there will be a bright lantern, powered by the sun, and a plug to charge mobile phones. Then it will be possible for the villagers to study, cook, and even work after dark. Marième’s long journey is partly over, but on the other hand it has just begun.
Her knowledge will help to light up Soudiane.
Text and photos: Niina Pitkänen