The barefoot ‘solar engineer’: An illiterate grandma’s journey to save her Sabah village
By Julia ChanOctober 4, 2014
Tarihing Masanim makes her way barefoot across a river in her village of Sonsogun Magandai, October 4, 2014. — Picture courtesy of Sabah Women Entrepreneurs and Professionals Association
KOTA KINABALU, Oct 4 — She may be illiterate, a grandmother of nine, and living in one of the most cut-off villages in Sabah, but 40-year-old Tarihing Masanim is on her way to becoming a “solar energy engineer”.
Living in a remote village of Kampung Sonsogon Magandai in northern Sabah, the Dusun rubber-tapper navigates herself around the village barefoot, having never owned a pair of shoes, nor been on an elevator, much less seen an airplane before.
But on September 15, she made her maiden flight to New Delhi, India, where she is currently undergoing a six-month intensive training programme to become a qualified solar engineer.
The challenge may not seem like a big deal to many, but the pay-off will mean electricity supply for the 100 households in her far-flung and self-sustaining community.
Tarihing and her husband Jupirin earn between RM100 and RM200 per month from rubber tapping, of which roughly RM60 is spent on diesel and battery supplies.
Like most villagers, they farm their own vegetables like sweet potato and tapioca to eat and occasionally feed the leftovers to the free-range chickens and pigs running around the lush, green hills between the sparsely populated village punctuated with log bridges around the Magandai river.
They prepare dinner using the dim glow of a diesel lamp, and retire early most nights. On Sundays, they go to the church atop a grassy hill, which offers a stunning view of the vast surrounding land.
The village, though picturesque, is cut off from most basic necessities like electricity, water, health care and education, mainly because it takes at least a five-hour bone-rattling drive to the nearest village of Kota Marudu — and that is only with the elements of daylight and good weather.
The long, arduous trek out to the town is made only when absolutely necessary, or when villagers have business to attend to. Each trip out of the village on a chartered four-wheel-drive vehicle costs about RM40 each way.
It is this remoteness, inaccessibility and poverty that has qualified the village for this “Grandma Solar Engineer” programme from Barefoot College, a non-governmental organisation based in western India that helps empower marginalised women worldwide and gives them a boost to drive their local village economy in a sustainable way.
The village of Sonsogun Magandai in northern Sabah is a five-hour drive through rough terrains from Kota Marudu, October 4, 2014. — Picture courtesy of Sabah Women Entrepreneurs and Professionals AssociationThe programme, running since 2004, teaches illiterate older women from rural communities how to fabricate, install, repair and maintain solar lighting units.
They will learn how to handle sophisticated charge controllers, to install solar panels and link them to batteries and to build solar lanterns and later assemble and install such units in their own villages.
With local partners Sabah Women Entrepreneurs and Professionals Association (SWEPA), Asian Forestry Company Sabah (AFCS), Raleigh International, Partners of Community Organisations in Sabah, GEF Small Grants Programme — UNDP, Sabah Credit Corporation and the state and federal governments, the Barefoot Solar Project identified the village and three grandmothers to be part of the project.
The two other potential participants had to drop out for health and personal reasons.
“I’m just so grateful that I get to have this experience, even after the other ladies dropped out. I’m sure they will regret not taking the opportunity.
“Some of the villagers were afraid that I would forgotten and left in India too, but I refused to listen to all the talk and I have trust in the organisers,” Tarihing said before she left, according to quotes provided to Malay Mail Online from Yap Li Ling, an AFCS project manager.
Tarihing, Yap noted, also said her husband and family supported her decision.
Tarihing, who speaks only Dusun and a heavily-accent Sabah Malay, was reportedly excited and nervous on the flight but started feeling overwhelmed upon touchdown in India, where no one but her chaperone and Yap speaks her language.
From New Delhi, they joined up with four Burmese grandmothers, and took an eight and a half hour drive to the town of Tilonia, Rajasthan where their campus is located.
“There she met ladies from Timor Leste who had just completed their six month stint. They reassured her of the programme and its benefits in Malay, and somehow they were all overcome with emotion and everyone started crying,” Yap told Malay Mail Online when met at her office here.
Tarihing has been given a handphone bought for her by one of the SWEPA members to keep in contact in case of an emergency.
She has a list of contacts indicated with symbols to help her dial the numbers.
Tarihing will return home to Sonsogun Magandai in March 2015, but the solar equipment is expected to delivered to the village a month earlier in February.
Each of the 100 homes in Sonsogun Magandai will be provided with a household solar system and a rechargeable lantern.
It will be Tarihing’s duty to power up the whole village, and maintain and repair the lighting gear for a minimum of five years.
As the sole guardian for her village’s power supply, she will be paid a monthly allowance.
Tarihing Masanim (centre) with other participants of the “Grandma Solar Engineer” programme from Barefoot College, a non-governmental organisation based in western India, October 4, 2014. — Picture courtesy of Sabah Women Entrepreneurs and Professionals AssociationBut for Tarihing, the reward will likely go beyond that as she will be able to share her newly- acquired knowledge at the purpose-built Rural Electronic Workshop (REW) funded by the Sabah Credit Corporation and built by volunteers from Raleigh International.
Not bad for a grandmother who never had the chance to go to school. Until now.