101.1: How It All Began: Part 1: Hanaa & Jasmine: 2007

A journal of how a group of women in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo began an odyssey to bring solar lights to a remote village by empowering an illiterate grandmother to become a solar engineer.


 Hanaa Wong Abdullah & Jasmine Leong: 2007:

 If ever there is a project destined to be fulfilled and realized for its blessings to be received by those who need it most, this has to be it. Coincidences can only be cited so often before they become divine interventions.

 It was in early 2007 when Hanaa Wong Abdullah recommended that Jasmine Leong apply for The 10th Commonwealth Study Conference. This conference had begun in 1956 by the British Royal Family in an effort to foster closer links between Commonwealth countries and to raise and discuss issues of the particular country where the conference is held. The conferences have been hosted by the UK, Australia, NZ and Canada and this was the first time it was to be hosted by India.

Both ladies are members of Sabah Women Entrepreneur and Professional Association (SWEPA) an association formed to help women empower themselves in society: “Women Helping Women Succeed”. Hanaa was to become Swepa’s President in 2011-2013.

47. Hanna Wong Abdullah (Cover)

Hanaa herself had been on a previous one in 2003 hosted by Australia & NZ and thought that Jasmine would be the ideal candidate to benefit from this study conference and its ensuing networking opportunities. So with the recommendation of Hanna and the Grace of our Lord she was selected and spent 3 eye opening weeks in India in March 2007. This was the report Jasmine filed after her visit to Barefoot College in Tilonia: 

Jasmine’s Story (Click to see slides)

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With HRH Princess Anne at the Conference.                 Jasmine’s CSC’07 Group.

Barefoot College, Tilonia: (excerpts from Jasmine’s Indian Experience: Be A Firefly)

We met Mr. Bunker Roy, the founder of Barefoot College in Tilonia, a remote village in one of India’s poorest state, Rajasthan.  Bunker is from a very privileged background and when he told his mother he was not going to go into politics but instead open a college for the poorest of the poor, his mother apparently fainted! J

 Now, what does this college do?  In the remote villages of India, electricity is still a luxury. Most villages are still without it and it is just too costly and too far for the government to be able to electrify every village.  So Mr. Roy set up a college to train these villagers to be solar-power engineers. And not just any villagers – he picks the middle aged women – mainly grandmothers of that community.  Why not the men, you ask? According to Mr. Roy, the moment you give a man a skill, a qualification, they run to the urban areas and leave their families and community behind in the rural areas. And so he went against all common sense, rhyme and reason and proved to everyone that an, illiterate  grandmother from the villages, could become solar-power engineers. within just 6 months.  It is funded 40% by the government and 60% by donations and funds from around the world.

 Not only does he bring electricity into these communities, he alleviates the status of women, breaks the barrier of traditional mindsets of women, of technology and of education and oh, so much more. He strongly believes that the disparity gap between rural and urban India can be bridged by empowering the rural women both economically and socially.

We had the privilege of not only visiting the Barefoot College but stayed overnight at the village – all completely solar powered.  We got to see firsthand the difference electricity made to these people.  That night we were taken on a bus deep into one of the many villages surrounding the college – it was pitch black outside and when we finally stopped and stumbled out, we could see one glimmer in the sea of darkness beckoning us forward.  We walked into a simple house, which had only one room where 20 or so children between the ages of 5 – 15 were sitting on the floor, facing a green chalk board, surrounding a solar powered lamp.  In front of the chalk board was a teacher. As we gathered round and sat on the floor with them, our Indian interpreter started telling us about the class. These children were attending Night School, as most of them could not go to school during the day due to many chores they need to do to help their families. They even have a ‘Children’s Parliament’, set up by Mr. Roy, so that the leaders of each night school could represent their class in the ‘Parliament’ and discuss important issues like books, lessons and teachers!

The Barefoot College has trained grandmothers not only from India but from other third world countries as well such as Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, to name a few. I remember on a tour around the college, walking into a class full of women from around the world in their second month of training, working on electrical pieces, colored cables and little bulbs. No one could speak to each other because of the language barriers and yet they were all connected in their task and their objective. Their teacher was a German engineer who volunteered to come two months in a year to teach and their not knowing English and German do not deter them from learning the intricacies of solar power engineering! You’ll have to see it to believe it!

Mr. Bunker Roy had the option of living the privileged life at the top of the pyramid.  But he decided instead to become the hope for the people at the bottom of the pyramid. He is not only a remarkable firefly for India but also shines his light for the least developed world countries. There are now about 20 such countries (in 2007) which have had their grandmothers so trained and are running solar powered electricity in their villages.

With the great man, Bunker Roy in Tilonia!!
With the great man, Bunker Roy in Tilonia!!

As we drove away from Barefoot College the next morning; I found it hard to put the experience into words, but one thing became clear – those of us who are privileged to be in a position of influence, have that much more of a responsibility to shine our light and give hope to those who have little or none.  I thought I’d done my bit by subscribing to World Vision, but after visiting places like the Barefoot College and Jaipur Foot, I realized how much more I can and should do.  So right now, as I’m in the education line, I’m already thinking of ways to start an Education Foundation for the poor in Sabah, East Malaysia perhaps focusing on the women. By giving them an education scholarship to help them out of their poverty cycle and also ensuring that they come back and help support their family, I may be able to help break the poverty cycle which entraps families.

IMGP1258Solar Panels

India Report – BE A FIREFLY
Jasmine’s Full report of her Indian experience

 On Jasmine’s return to Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, she couldn’t stop talking about her experiences in meeting Bunker Roy and visiting Barefoot College and all that it stood for and is doing and the chances of bringing it to Sabah to help our rural poor. She gave talks to SWEPA, Toastmasters and at every speaking opportunity. Her enthusiasm and passion was passed onto her mother Datuk Adeline Leong, also a member of SWEPA and who was to become its President in 2009-2011. Together they tried to explore ways of bringing Barefoot College training to Sabah but as time went by and other priorities took over, it became a pipe dream……..until…….

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