Rafea Ehnad lights a pile of plywood in the middle of her tent. It’s cold in the desert evening and she jokes that her central heating system comes from a broken cupboard — it’s the worst wood to burn but it’s the only thing keeping her family warm. Rafea lives in a rural Jordanian village with her four daughters. She is a second wife to an unemployed husband who rarely visits. And her life and the village she lives in is about to change forever.
This week I had an amazing opportunity to watch and review the documentary Solar Mamas, premiering November 5 on the Independent Lens at 10pm (EST) on PBS. Solar Mamas documents how Rafea, along with 27 other women from Guatemala, Kenya, Burkina Faso, and Columbia are chosen to become solar-energy engineers.
With support from Raouf Dabbas, a senior advisor from the Ministry of Environment, she leaves her village for the first time in her life to go to the Barefoot College in Tilonia, India and learn how to wire and install solar panels. The Barefoot College was founded by activist and educator Bunker Roy to “provide training to rural poor to empower them to make their communities self-reliant and sustainable.” The intention behind the solar-energy program is that after six months of training, these women will return to their communities with specialized knowledge to not only help them establish an independent income but also to help create jobs and, as Rafea hopes, to transform the lives of women in her community:
I can’t do anything if I don’t have any skills. I want to explore the world. I want to learn. I want to see how people in other countries think and work. I want to think and work with them… I want to succeed and change the situation in the village.
While she succeeds at the college and develops a close camaraderie with the other women, she is soon manipulated by her husband into leaving India. Rafea’s husband insists that she returns to Jordan — threatening her with divorce and the loss of her four daughters. After two months of this pressure, she’s left with no choice but to return home.
But once she is back in her village, she sets out to convince her husband, some of the female members of her family and the village elders that nothing is going to stop her from going back to India to pursue her studies. And after further support from Dabbas, she is sent back to complete the program. She succeeds and returns to her community with new skills and a vision to help educate others.
Co-director Mona Eldaief was inspired to document Rafea’s story after meeting Bunker Roy at the Sundance Film Festival and hearing about his work at the Barefoot College. She felt it was the most incredible story that women from disenfranchised parts of the world, many who don’t know how to read or write, are able to have this opportunity to completely change their lives in such a short amount of time.
I have to say that I absolutely loved this film. Rafea is an amazing woman and her drive to better herself and her community is simply inspiring. There is no narration or interview process in the film, and so not only does the story unfold naturally, but the women are given an unmediated platform to speak for themselves. Something that I found immensely refreshing. This is not a story about a man, an institution or a western saviour swooping down on disenfranchised woman ready to rescue them from their oppression. This is a story about women having the opportunity to do it for themselves and succeeding.
And let me tell you, there was a lot of cheering from my end as I watched Rafea take on community and familial patriarchal attitudes — and completely emasculate her controlling husband. So I strongly suggest that if you have the opportunity, check out Solar Mamas this Monday night on PBS. You can also keep an eye on the initiative Why Poverty? — they’ll be making the film available online sometime after it airs.
Check out the trailer below: