When we started filming Solar Mamas, one of the Why Poverty? documentaries, in India, there were 28 women from seven different countries who spoke nine different languages all sitting together in a classroom at the Barefoot College. They were there to train to be solar engineers, as part of the college's mission to provide services and "solutions" to the problems in rural communities. The women were attending the only training program of its kind in the world for illiterate women, and the goal was to help them take their knowledge back to their villages to create jobs and opportunity.
At first, six months of technical training in a classroom seemed like a very slow process.
But one month into the training, the drama began. An exception to Barefoot College founder Bunker Roy's ideology of training only grandmothers had been made, and her name was Rafea.
Rafea is a 32-year-old mother of four daughters. She comes from a Bedouin village in the northeastern desert in Jordan close to the border of Iraq, where most girls are forbidden to go to school past the age of ten. Needless to say, women going out to seek employment opportunities is not an option. Men in the village have an average of two wives and 20 children and can't provide for their families.
When one of the two grandmothers who had been recruited from Jordan backed out at the last minute, Rafea instantly volunteered to replace her. Although she had never left the country before, she jumped on the opportunity without an ounce of fear or hesitation, packed her bags and left for India the next morning. When she got into the classroom, she immediately absorbed the training. It was like it was second nature to her.
After just six weeks at the Barefoot College, her husband called her to battle. He threatened that if she did not return home immediately he would divorce her, steal her kids and she would never see them again. He had woken up to the fact that his wife could potentially be self-reliant, empowered and emerge as a leader in the village, which threatened his manhood to say the least.
But it was too late: Rafea's eyes had been opened. Her potential had been realized.
Within one month at the Barefoot College, she became keenly aware that she was capable of anything she put her mind to. If she could finish training, it wouldn't just change her life, or the life of her kids, but the lives of everyone around her.
For the next two months back home in Jordan, she had to battle against the patriarchal rules of her culture and the beliefs of other Bedouin women who had resigned themselves to their hopelessness.
Her relentless conviction took her back to India with an even stronger sense of purpose about why she was there. She ended up graduating first in the class. When she came back home, her infectious confidence began to inspire other women in her community to risk change for a better life.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the cycle of poverty or equal rights, but realizing one's potential can certainly plant the seeds for change.
One of the key elements in capturing an intimate observational story is the trust that you develop with your subject. By bearing witness to Rafea's struggle and drive, we were fully invested in the outcome of her narrative and she felt that every step of the way.
She knew innately that the camera offered her a platform to influence others to change, and that sharing her story was a powerful tool.