Experience #28 - Tilonia, India



Our month in India was intense due to many reasons. Besides my big expectation of going there, we could be in cities with quite different cultures. The first was Auroville, which is in Tamil Nadu state in the Southeast. Afterwards we went to Dharamsala, in the Northwest, where we made our retreats. This is a region with Tibetan Buddhist influence due to the great migration that happened after the indecent Tibet domination by the Chinese in 1950. We also passed by Delhi twice for the day, where we could feel the human warmth from the big metropolis. Later we went to Tilonia, a district in Rajasthan state, where we learned a lot with the organization which is the subject of this text. There was also Jaipur and Udaipur, where we saw many palaces and a bit of Indian contrasts.


I’ll start with peculiarities that speak for themselves regarding their way of living. The horn is used as often as the accelerator and actually even the trucks have written on the back “horn please”. Seriously, it’s the right way to request to overtake… This way they are really conditioned to believe that’s just normal to have an uninterrupted loud sound as part of the daily routine, but any foreigner from a “non-horning” country is prized with constant affrights while walking through the streets. It’s fun at least… Still in the traffic context, cows are an active part of it even in the middle of the highway. They are respected there and almost nobody eat their meat, despite not been taken care, in my point of view, as I saw them malnourished eating garbage many times.



Searching for goodwill organizations, among many we knew and others that someone appointed us preparing the trip, the Barefoot College was no miss. I honestly don’t remember how, not even when I got to know about it, but since then I had an excellent impression about their work.


It was founded in 1972 by the people in the village with the leadership of Sanjit “Bunker” Roy to work against poverty and inequality, with the commitment of taking care of the poor, neglected and marginalized ones by the society. It’s not about the pure aid of giving, but about developing each one’s talent. Way more than an organization, they were able to develop themselves with a principle of community that I’ve just seen there, redefining the concept of professionalism so that everyone can be capable to know and show his abilities to serve the community with a dignified work. This occurs due to many reasons and, in my opinion, the main one is that social inclusion was successfully taken word by word aiming the equality among all the member citizens.


In order to explain this better it’s important to mention that there is a serious social segregation in India due to the caste system. In it, the most discriminate status class is called Dalit, in which its people are seen as “untouchable” because they usually do types of work considered “impure”. An example is the activities that involve garbage and blood, like dustman and butcher. This prejudice was once so ignorant that they were forbidden to enter in the temples and children had to eat in separate plates at school… Time is diminishing this absurd differentiation, but the reality is that it still exists, for what we could hear and feel.


Barefoot’s community development was capable of abstracting this prejudice and of promoting the apprenticeship among everyone, independently from caste and financial conditions. Another inclusion that impresses me was for people who had muscle atrophy and paralysis in childhood due to poliomyelitis. Until the big vaccination campaign held in the 90’s this was a serious problem in India.



A friend we made there, Ramniwas, is a community leader who taught us a lot about living in villages and told us about his life. Being a Dalit he clearly remembers the different social interaction his father used to have, then himself in his youth and today his daughters’. Happily he shared with a certain sorrow and relief as the girls are not discriminated, neither mistreated.


Along the afternoon we were together, he told us with a spontaneous joy about how he learned equality and respect. When he was young he was questioned who would be the householder in the case his father passed away and in a virility reaction he answered that he would be the one, of course, the oldest son. In that same moment he realized that only his mother would be capable of taking care of the family, the house and of taking over all the responsibilities. It was this way that he noticed how rooted the gender inequality is in the society and he took from that situation a wisdom for his whole life, recognizing his role and the value of others, especially women. It was very inspiring to listen to him in a goodwill confessional tone.



He’s part of an amazing awareness work created 28 years ago. Through the puppets theatre they are able to approach and educate the population regarding delicate subjects which are rarely discussed, like sexual violence. Representing daily situations with humour they found a perfect way to bring consciousness to the villages where people have a minimum access to information and to public services. These itinerant events call out the attention where they pass by and happen around 150 times a year in several cities of Rajasthan.


Education is a strong pillar that goes beyond the traditional education. Exchanging learning with an intense living experience, people became dentists and pathologists in months there, for example. People who were illiterate adults were capable of learning. Even Gabi made a brief dental check with the dentist when she was warmly treated. This is to empower.



Another inspiring idea coming from there was the children parliament, where kids organize themselves to demand their rights and gain knowledge since then about the power of being aware of each ones’ responsibility and how good it’s for everybody to live in society. It works so seriously that in case an agreement with an adult is dishonoured, his member salary is deposited in the children’s fund. It’s imaginable how much of self-confidence it builds and teaches.


A very interesting equality principle is that all the people who are members of the Barefoot and have their respective community responsibility, receive the same monthly wage according to the working days. If it’s from Monday to Saturday, the most common, it’s approximately 82 American dollars a month. It may seem derisive, but India has one of the lowest costs of living in the world and the standard in the region is even simpler, what allows them to live with a minimum of dignity. It’s worth highlighting that many of them grew up in an environment where there were very few opportunities to thrive and earn a living.


Besides the responsibility of taking care of the campus, there are several businesses being done in the workshops. There, feminine pads are produced, as well as mosquito nets, wood toys, notebooks, bags made from recycled materials and even solar panels. There is also a radio to share the topics under discussion. Many products are sold outside their area, guaranteeing therefore part of the members’ sustaining. They are so well organized that even an annual financial report is available in the website.


The solar panels are part of an even bigger project that trains women from all around the world in order to supply energy for their villages. A network was built among 64 countries in which women are chosen to go to Tilonia for a six months training about solar energy. They get out of there as engineers capable of training and building panels for houses in their home country neighbourhood. The most surprising challenge is that as they didn’t have access to education they almost don’t speak English, so the communication is done by gestures and with materials already built.



We met a class of forty women from twelve different countries, like Guatemala, Congo and Myanmar. We could talk more with the Latin ones, of course, and felt that despite they are learning it’s not an easy experience for them as they are far away from family, eating local food and with certain communication restrictions. Honestly we’re doubtful about the positive and negative sides, but the numbers show it’s an incredible work that has already supplied electricity to more than 40.000 rural homes around the world and has empowered so many women.


Besides visiting many projects inside the campus, we could see a bit of the villages around and it was a great privilege to be able to see how they live there. We saw people sleeping outside their house door, as the external breeze is better than the intense heat inside (I’ve heard this, but I’ve never seen it). Who is brave enough to sleep by the doorstep of the house or building in São Paulo?… Luckily we even saw a wedding happening in a Tuesday night where the groom, on a white ornate horse, was riding through the streets heading the bride’s house with a lot of music and more than a hundred people around him. (I couldn’t take pictures because they asked me so.) They told us that in the rural area all marriages are still arranged between families while in the big cities it happens just with half of them. Cultures!



Among many things we knew there, the most impactful were the Night Schools. They work for children from six to fifteen years old, being 70% girls. Despite the admirable mission of educate, the first question that came up to me was “why at night?”. Unfortunately, due to poverty, children work in the fields since early age to help the family income. As we learned in Africa, the family prioritizes boy’s education because they believe they have bigger chances to find a job in the future, that’s why girls usually end up working at home, in crops and with animals.


Therefore the only daily free time to study is after work. Here a brief dilemma rises to opine if it’s right, as theses schools “accept” child labour, but bearing in mind to respect their roots and go step by step to progress it can be better than nothing. Keep it for your thoughts.


We could join a class in Baghpura village with its coordinator, Rameshwar. It was quite thrilling to see children learning numbers sitting on the floor with no much light. They have blackboard and chalk for the exercises. The professors are members of the Barefoot’s organization and live nearby where they teach from 7pm until 10pm. Today there are 85 schools educating 2000 children.


The teachers we met were extremely loving and fun during the classes, what inspired us a lot while feeling it all happening. One curiosity about the culture that even they laughed when they were telling us, aware of how weird it is for us, is that one of the boys was already married. He is eight years old and is, actually, promised for the wife’s family. At least they will get married and move in together, effectively, when they become eighteen years old. While we were listening to all that, the dilemmas couldn’t stop shaking my head… Real contrasts!



The achievements of the project are unquestionable, but, as we felt in many organizations we’ve been in the past months, the volunteers don’t have an exactly clear role. We met a Mexican couple, a Brazilian girl and an Indian man who were learning and contributing each one in his own way, what is the most important. Just to be fair in recommending to you to go participate it’s important to align expectations. The most fundamental is to remind that those people are masters in doing what they do and it makes no sense to think about redesigning it all from scratch. Nevertheless problems exist, therefore will to improve is always welcome and very effective, mainly with love.


Gratitude to our friends from Barefoot who kindly took care of us. Especially, Ramniwas, Rameshwar and the volunteer Harsh who introduced us to many people.


It’s hard to transmit sensations with words, but what remains from this outstanding experience is that including everyone in the society, despite its size, is not about providing work and money. Is allowing people to be someone, participate and be aware that they deserve living with dignity. Recognize that all of us have rights and that ignoring others due to the shape of their body or their social class is absolutely inhuman.


Having conscious that this is wrong is natural, but we know we live everyday tolerating inequalities and discriminations.


Well, the change is reachable for everyone, it’s a matter of wanting it.


If you want to know more, visit and donate the website is quite explanatory: http://www.barefootcollege.org


Felipe.