The light bulb came on above my head while watching this film.

Solar Mamas was presented to a small Fayetteville Public Library audience at 2:00 this afternoon. It showed how the Barefoot College in India is training women to become solar engineers.  I watched it like I have viewed many documentaries, but in this unusual case I realized just how much Ripples has changed the way I engage with new information. I didn’t want to donate money to the impoverished people on the screen; rather, I wanted to pay them to teach me their skills.

For most of my life, documentaries have been a form of information entertainment.  And today wasn’t really that much different on the surface – I sat with my fellow Americans and listened briefly to the beginning of a discussion on what those women are doing over there, but inside my head, I was thinking about what I could be doing here to follow their example.  Instead of feeling far removed from the ladies on the screen, it seemed to me that they would be the perfect partners in Ripples’ work in the field of alternative energy.  As they put together their first solar electric circuit, we were more like colleagues – I craned my neck trying to see the various tools they were using, filing the information away in my memory so that someday I too might make a light switch work using the sun.

It used to be this really surprising, pity-inspiring experience to watch documentaries that included the house of the people being filmed.  Perhaps we’re trained from a young age to see our drafty, expensive houses as utterly superior to things like yurts and tents etc.  But the funny thing is, since earthbag homes have been built all over the world with modifications suitable to the local climate, it equalizes us.  If Ryan and I had adopted kids who lived in the earthbag home with us, and they attended a documentary on the “developing world” they might say, “Hey Mom! It’s our house!” and perhaps feel perfectly fine about living there themselves, whether it’s Colombia or Sri Lanka.  And I would hope that the audience wouldn’t feel badly about the house on the screen, and tell our kids “That’s how poor people live.”

When the facilitator asked the audience why they were interested in this film, my answer came to mind quickly, even though I didn’t get the chance to share it in the sea of typical responses such as “to learn more about other parts of the world” and “to be supportive of women’s empowerment”.  These used to be my responses, too.  But now I attend these documentaries for a different reason.  For me, they are no longer story books to be analyzed, debated, and reflected upon.  They aren’t a call for charity giving, or a reminder to be grateful we don’t live in those countries.

I went to this screening because there are real women around the world who are right now engineering solar lights in their communities, for economic and environmental benefits.  And I am a woman who wants to use solar lights in my house for economic and environmental benefits.  This is like walking down the street to ask a neighbor if I could borrow some salt, because she has some and I don’t.  Let’s all turn the lights on, together! ;)

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