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MANILA, Philippines – Fifty-year-old Aeta grandmother Evelyn Clemente never imagined she would one day learn how to install solar-powered lamps. But on Monday, March 16, she and 3 other Aeta women arrived in Manila from a 6-month training program in India.
“Ako ngayon hindi lang isang babae o isang lola o isang nanay. Isa na akong solar engineer. Kung ano po ang nagagawa ninyong mga lalaki, kaya kong gawin ‘yan at hihigitan ko pa,” she said proudly during a press briefing.
(Now I am not just a woman or a grandmother or a mother. I am a solar engineer. What men can do, I can do and do it better.)
Now, she can connect small solar panels with lanterns to light up Aeta villages. She knows how to fabricate, maintain, and repair them. (READ: Solar panels light up Yolanda houses)
The hardest part, she told Rappler, is inserting a tiny component called “resistance” into the circuit.
“You have to look at the color carefully because, if your eyes are blurry, you will make a mistake. The LED lamp will not light up,” she explained in Filipino.
All this, she and her companions learned in Barefoot College, a school in Rajasthan, India, that empowers illiterate women to deliver solar power, clean water, education, livelihood development, and activism projects to rural communities.
The school is run by Indian Sanjit “Bunker” Roy who was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2010.
The Aeta grandmothers, dubbed “solar lolas,” were sent to the Barefoot College through the “Tanging Tanglaw” program – a joint effort of women empowerment group Diwata, the Philippine Mine Safety and Environment Association (PMSEA), and the Land Rover Club of the Philippines.
Clemente and another solar lola hail from Sitio Gala in Aningway village in Subic, Zambales – an Aeta resettlement village. The two others come from Gayaman Anupul in Bamban, Tarlac.
The most difficult thing about the training, said Clemente, is the language barrier. They were taught by Indian trainers and were “classmates” with other IP women from all over the world.
To get technical concepts across, the instructors would use sign language or would color code instructions. If that failed, they would resort to simple English words.
The lolas got up at 8 am every day and started class at 9 am. The work was intensive and “scary,” said Clemente .
During one session, the circuit that Aeta grandmother Sharon Flores was working on exploded. But she was unfazed.
“Hindi ko inisip na agad ako umuwi. Ang inisip ko, inspirasyon ko ang aking pamilya at lahat ng komunidad para magawa ko ito,” she said.
(I didn’t think right away that I should just go home. I thought, my family and community are my inspiration to do this.)
Flores missed her 8 kids and 4 grandchildren terribly while she was away. She called them 3 times a month, worried that one of them might be sick without her to take care of them.
But it was for their sake she kept going. She hopes her new skills can help send them to school.
“The women in our village don’t have jobs. They gave us a job,” she said in Filipino, unable to keep her tears at bay.
Traveling to a different country and confronting a whole new culture and way of life was just as daunting.
For one thing, it was the first time any of them had stepped into a plane.
“We were shouting inside the airplane! We were holding on to each other. One of us even farted!” shared Flores.
Lighting up their villages
Now that the solar lolas are back in the Philippines, “It’s time to get dirty,” said PMSEA assistant treasurer Annie Dee.
The second part of the program aims to install solar panels in 200 households in the villages of the grandmothers. Who will do the installing? The solar lolas, of course.
Each pair of Aeta grandmothers will be installing solar panels in 100 households.
This part of the program will cost around P7 million ($157,000) per village, said Dee. The initial funding will be raised by Diwata, PMSEA and the Land Rover Club. (READ: How sustainable are solar power aid projects in the PH?)
With its partner companies being part of the mining industry, PMSEA hopes to get financial support from mining companies – several of which have operations in Tarlac and Zambales.
“For us, IP communities are an important stakeholder in mining activities so for us, anything that will help the community is a good one,” she told Rappler.
But it won’t be spoon-feeding. The communities themselves have to help make the program work.
“The idea is not just to install solar power but for them to have a sustainable program. They have to collect funds so that the solar engineers will be able to collect salary from their community,” she said.
The idea is to give the solar panel equipment for free but for the community to collect a solar power fee. The fee will be used to pay the solar lolas who will install, maintain and repair the panels and lanterns.
For this to fly, the fee must be less than what the community is currently paying for electricity. While some residents of the villages get their power from the National Power Corporation, many houses are still without electricity, said Clemente.
It won’t be difficult to convince them of the benefits of solar-powered lighting, she added.
“It should lessen their expenses and during emergency like brown-outs or calamities, we have a lantern we can use,” she said.
Portable and easy-to-install solar panels are also compatible with the nomadic lifestyle many Aetas still pursue.
But for Clemente, the program has already lit up her life.
“Ang pinaka malaki yung natuto kami na gumawa ng solar lantern. Kung sakali, kung may pondo, gusto namin ma-improve yung aming natutunan doon at makapagturo sa ibang mga nanay.“
(The biggest help was we learned how to make solar lanterns. If ever, if there are funds, we want to improve on what we learned and teach other mothers.) – Rappler.com