Story and Photographs by John Mbaria (A version of this story first appeared in The EastAfrican)
Carefully, the elderly woman holds on to a solar-powered light. In her hands are two of her tools of trade; a small hammer and a screw driver. She then picks a solar panel, a hands-on manual and four solar lamps in readiness to fix the items in a manyatta in Pardamat village close to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Narok County. To the amazement of all present, she goes on to confidently fix the panel, wires and lamps inside this Maasai traditional dwelling with the expertise of an accomplished technician.
Her head is clean shaven, her earlobes decisively adorned with multi-coloured beaded bangles. Around her neck dangles a multitude of equally beautiful necklaces that blend perfectly with her side cloth and the long blue Maasai dress. The woman is a living testimony of how marginalised people can improve their own fortunes and change neighbourhoods if given the opportunities so often denied to them.
The traditionally-adorned woman laughs easily as she fields my questions. She is evidently happy as she explains her enviable role in the community. Nemanyatta Kipetu is a solar ‘engineer’, trained at the Barefoot college in India. She now installs solar panels and lights in different manyattas in the area. For her pains, she is paid Ksh1, 000 per installation. She is also involved in training young men who she relies on to climb rooftops as she instructs them.
“She is trained and experienced in solar engineering,” her daughter -who was present during the interview- quipped. By installing solar power, in this unlit part of Kenya, Nemanyatta has contributed positively, in more ways than in, in improving lives and livelihoods in the area.
The village is part of the wildlife dispersal area outside the Maasai Mara. Here, wild animals roam all over the place with the herbivores -mainly gnus, zebras, buffalos and giraffes- attracting carnivores. Lions visit here at night in search of prey. At times, they steal into homesteads, killing livestock in a human-wildlife conflict that remains unmitigated by different approaches adopted by KWS, conservation NGOs and the Narok County Government.
Homes here are set widely apart; the entire place is engulfed in pitch darkness when the night falls. Those able to install solar power are envied by their neighbours as this keeps the lions, hyenas and other carnivores from killing their livestock. “Lions, hyenas and leopards tends to keep off any home that has the lights,” says Moses Ntoroge, an official from World Concern, the organisation that has partnered with UNDP Small Grants Programme in the project.
What is also interesting is that the lights are used as landmarks by people travelling at night as they aid in locating their homesteads across the monotonous plain. Children are also now able to do homework or read at night. It is clear from the interview that the solar panels put in place by Nemanyatta not only serve as security installations but are also extremely important for the local people in many other respects.
A member of the Nkopelia Women Group, Nemanyatta has so far installed over 40 units in the area. She is unable to explain how she fixes the solar panels in Swahili or English. Throughout the interview, she speaks in Maa and relies on Ntoroge who translates my questions and later relays her responses in Swahili.
The elderly woman says that she did not see the inside of a classroom when growing up. “I was married as a young girl and was mainly involved in looking after my husband’s livestock,” she say. But she is quick to point out that she was able to understand the training lessons imparted by trainers at Barefoot College in India.
Nemanyatta was accompanied by other women from Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Chad to India, credit to a programme run by the Small Grants Program of the United Nations Development Programme which is funded by the Global Environmental Facility (UNDP/SGP-GEF). The funding has also been used to subsidize the cost of solar panels making it affordable for the local people.
The funding enabled Nemanyatta to travel to India to learn not just how to install solar power but also how to make the lamps, candles and chalk. She was trained together with four other Kenyan women who are now involved in similar activities in different parts of the country. None of the women were able to understand the Hindi Language spoken by their tutors; but as Nemanyatta demonstrates during the interview, she is quite competent in installing the devices. In fact, it is perfectly clear that she very well understands the nitty-gritty of her new occupation and is as accomplished as any technician who might have gone through formal training.
When I ask her about her flight experience, she laughs openly, looks at me saying that it was unlike travelling in a motor vehicle. “It was smooth and enjoyable…(and)… an experience of sorts” she tells me through the translator. The first “hurdle’ for officials of World Concern, who identified Nemanyatta and the rest of the women, was how to convince her to agree to travel. “ I was not sure the airplane would arrive safely and didn’t want to be away from my family for six months.” She had to be coaxed by her daughter who says that this was not as tough as it would have been if her husband was alive.
Nemanyatta says that she did not like Indian food. “The food was either too sweet or had lots of pepper in it…I didn’t like buffalo milk at all because it made my body itch.” She says that her diet was normally composed of rice, pumpkins, chapatti and mandazi which was altered slightly after she complained. As she explains, Nemanyatta was greatly surprised when she learned that Indians treat the cow as a sacred animal. “I found it surprising that they would wait for a cow to grow old and later go on to bury it when it died.”
Her classes commenced from 7.00 a.m. and ended at 1.00 p.m. She was taken through hands-on training on soldering and how to make candles and chalk. She says that the trainers mostly spoke in Hindi but would occasionally switch to English. “But I didn’t find the language barrier much of a problem.” She was able to grasp the lessons since much of the training was practical, was done through gestures and that all the trainees were given an illustrated manual. “I would shout “probem” if I had a problem and “medika” to get medical attention.”
Nemanyatta says that she was astounded by the sheer number of vehicles and trains in India. She was however unable to operate a computer assigned to her and fellow women. “We did not even touch it the entire time we stayed at the college,” she laughs as she says this.
“By the time we were through with the training, we had soldered 400 solar lamps.” She says that Barefoot College donated all the lamps and the candles to her women group but clearing them with the Kenya Revenue Authority proved difficulty as the latter charged duty on them.
Training the forgotten
Barefoot College is a not-for-profit institution that provides rural and marginalized communities with the wherewithal to attain self reliance by providing them with training and solutions to their predicament.
This includes training in solar electrification, clean water, education livelihood and how to fight for their rights. The institution uses ‘barefoot’ as the symbol that universally identifies many rural folk forgotten by governments and other agents of change, many of who walk barefoot. “The College believes that for any rural development activity to be successful and sustainable, it must be based in the village as well as managed and owned by those whom it serves,” the College says in its website.
Barefoot mainly targets women in marginalised communities whose fortunes are affected by exploitation and sheer poverty. It sharpens the resources that local people have and their traditional knowledge and skills to build homes for the homeless, collect rain water in rural areas where potable water sources are scarce, as well as to spread messages that are beneficial to target groups through puppets.
Barefoot college then goes on to give the beneficiaries training on only those technologies they can easily understand, access and control. This has not only demystified technology but also accords its ownership to those who live difficulty situations.
Among its beneficiaries have been rural men and women who can barely read or write. Today, as many as 6,525 women involved in smallholder farming, petty trades, wage labour, mid-wifely and housewives have been trained as hand-pump mechanics, FM-radio operators, masons, dentists, solar engineers, artisans, weavers and as teachers. The college prefers to train people who will continue to live in the villages and has a bias for women who are either single mothers, middle-aged, divorced, physically challenged or illiterate. As the College says in its website, these are the people who have dire need for employment and income generating opportunities.
A village celebrity
Nemanyatta was one of the beneficiaries of the training. She was later taken through a refresher course at the Base Camp, a tourism facility located outside the Mara Reserve. Nemanyatta is now contracted by fellow villagers and has to traverse long distances to reach the manyattas.
She says that some clients do not pay her. “But I am not concerned about this…I am grateful to God that I was picked for the training.”
Her training and the work she does for the community has made her a celebrity in the village. Since she started installing solar power, the mother of eight children, was selected by other villagers to sit in a committee of a local primary school.