Review - The light that no one could put out

23rd November 2012 at 00:00

Rafea Anad's life is not great. She is 32, she can neither read nor write and she lives in a tent in the Jordanian desert. "This is our central heating," she says, throwing a piece of MDF on the fire.

But then Rafea (pictured) is offered a place on a six-month electrical engineering course at Barefoot College in India. The college teaches illiterate women to install solar technology in their villages. Rafea's journey to India, and to educational fulfilment, is the focus of Solar Mamas, a one-off documentary on BBC Four.

There are 27 women in Rafea's class: from Kenya, Burkina Faso, Colombia. Lessons begin with "memory by learning". The teacher tells the women the names of items of equipment - "screwdriver"; "wire cutters" - and the women attempt to contort their mouths around the unfamiliar syllables, before collapsing into giggles. Gradually, though, they begin to learn.

So far, so worthy. But then Rafea receives repeated phone calls from her husband, telling her that he will divorce her and take her children away unless she comes home immediately. She comes home.

Something fundamental has changed, however. "All we do is sit here and drink tea and smoke cigarettes," Rafea says to her mother. "It hasn't harmed anyone," her mother returns.

But Rafea wants more. She announces her decision to return to India. "Do you think I'm a weak man?" her husband says. "I didn't make you weak. You did it yourself," Rafea snaps back.

Displaying an extraordinarily intuitive grasp of psychology, she works out that her husband's power relies entirely on her willingness to play by his rules. When he threatens again to take her children away, she responds with what is essentially the Arabic equivalent of "whatever, loser".

She is smart. Really smart. She is also ambitious. And these qualities shine out, despite everything: despite her illiteracy, her poverty, the relentless patriarchy of the culture she lives in.

It is a humbling thing to witness. It is also slightly depressing. Because, yes, Rafea graduates from Barefoot College. Yes, she begins to teach the other women in her village. Yes, she now has a government salary and a proper house, complete with solar-powered lighting.

But: "You can get used to a life which is not your own," she says to a fellow student at the college. And then she cries.

Solar Mamas will be shown on BBC Four on 2 December at 9pm.

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