Flipping the Switch
PublicationApr 29, 2019
By Dave Moutray
I grew up in the American Midwest, the oldest child of a Cuban mother and a father from St. Louis, Missouri. My looks may come from his side of the family, but it is my Cuban mother who gave me this insatiable love of stories.
When I was a child, we struggled financially, like many families in a small town of 2,700 people who depended on two broomcorn factories for income. I remember my mother splitting napkins in half so they would last longer. It was instinctive for us to save ketchup packets from McDonald’s and my haircuts were done by placing a mixing bowl on my head and my mom trimming around the edges. Those experiences came back to me at odd moments, as I traveled with the film crew of “Flip the Switch” in remote, impoverished regions of the world this last year.
Yet, it was enough to hike out of a deep ravine after filming on a rainy day in the mountains of Guatemala to hammer home the differences between the hardships I experienced growing up and the drastic poverty we were witnessing. My lungs burned and my legs ached. My waterlogged clothes felt as heavy as the camera gear I carried. Right alongside us walked a man who must have been 15 to 20 years older me. He had an easy stride and a thin smile; he and others in the village did this often.
But I also saw everything that make us one: a mother’s embrace; a son doing math by a single solar lamp with the help of his father. Sure, my childhood home had electricity and insulation, but I saw the comfort of human connections, the close-tied families, and all this felt as familiar to me as everything else around me felt foreign.
We had set out to capture the lives of disadvantaged women turned solar engineers. A critical story from distant corners of the world where women are leading the rise out of crushing generational poverty. These women (now representing nearly 100 countries and numbering close to 3,000) leave everything they know and travel to Barefoot College in India: a women-centered global network dedicated to sustainable development. Somehow, despite barriers of literacy, language and culture, over a period of six months, they learn to single-handedly channel solar energy to electrify their villages and literally bring the light.
We were guests. We had much to learn if we were going to be successful in capturing the daily life in these remote, rural villages instead of filming a preconceived vision of how the world should be.
I did feel self-conscious; we stood out. It felt as if our laughter was too loud, our body language overconfident. I was most concerned with the footprints we would leave. I wanted to have an impact, but my priority has always been to do no harm.
Barefoot College Solar Mamas, as they are proudly known, have provided the sole source of power in places as distant and cold as the Arctic and as sultry as the desert of Mexico, or from the heights of the Andes to the beaches of Belize. Once trained in building, installing and maintaining solar panels and batteries, the women also learn entrepreneurship skills. Some turn sewing into a craft business. Others cultivate coffee. One of the most successful programs is beekeeping. The beekeeping suits worn in Zanzibar and India to cultivate honey are made by the Solar Mamas from discarded boat sails. The heavy canvas and netting protects them from swarms of bees as they do their work. I learned this firsthand, donning the suit to film the hives, as bees swarmed around me and my rubber boots filled with my sweat.
Miles of Mistakes
Six months earlier, our pre-production team had landed in Guatemala City; humid and hot, the city was a vast and unknown territory. We barely had a plan. We had our pristine passports, our unlimited enthusiasm and a will to learn.
Though Guatemala ranks high in danger for American tourists, we felt bodyguards would be counterproductive and I worried about our visit’s disruption to the locals’ lives. On the other hand, solidarity works with all of us being part of the solution. And all the women I was working with, whether sitting in London or sinking in muddy trails, understood each other in ways that were not troubled by any type of barrier.
We made our first trek out of the crushing traffic and noisy snarl into the bone-jarring pot-holed roads deep into the forests where less than a generation earlier, indigenous people fled to survive the brutal civil war. In places that once offered the only source of protection, they had carved out homes. We went wherever our truck and driver could take us to meet people, as if taking the pulse of our story.
Our plan was ambitious. Our budget, um… let’s say, limited. We wanted to transcend the difficulties of vast distances, disparate cultures and numerous languages. When all was said and done, we filmed in eight countries on five continents with people who spoke six different languages.
The story emerged. One that wasn’t as easy, straight or simple as donors would like it to be. For every “improvement” came other challenges. For every new story of impact came other stories of need. But through it all, we saw just how complex “women’s empowerment” is when considered on a global scale. This was the story, one woman at a time taking life-transforming action in places where it’s hard to live the present, let alone dream a future.
Light, Opportunity and New Problems
On our critical visit to Guatemala, we traveled deep into the rainforest to the community of P’al, far outside my comfort zone. I was skeptical (and a little scared): it was raining; it had had been for quite a while that day and night. We were warned the roads would be challenging and tedious; mudslides and uprooted trees could potentially cancel our plans. There was a part of me that thought, “We’ve got interviews from others to cover, and enough b-roll already for that portion of the story.” But the larger part of me wanted to meet more Solar Mamas there and measure their impact. We woke at 4 a.m. to see if the trek was safe, and our producer gave us the green light. What happened next was the most challenging, unnerving, without a doubt, most impactful and inspiring treks of my life.
Our driver Armando met us in a small village at the bottom of the mountain. And just like that, we bounced in the rain over roads that often were only big enough for us to hug along between a steep decline and the side of the mountain.
I sat in the front seat and looked over a fog-drenched valley that had to be miles below us. We were told that a big tree had been uprooted and slid down, blocking the dirt road to the village. I watched in amazement as Armando worked the clutch, gas, brake and emergency brake in unison to keep the truck from sliding down the ravine. Between a bridge that was held together by rain-soaked wood, much of it drooping in aged shreds, to large potholes that required deft maneuvering by Armando, we kept going.
Until we didn’t anymore: we’d reached the tree. So we emptied out of the truck, gathered our equipment, made sure it was protected from rain, and there we went. We were told it would be a two-hour walk each way.
The rain was constant at first, acting as its own steady gloom, then it lessened as we went further down, until we noticed that the drenched landscape had turned stunning — green upon green, until it met the grey of a fading rain cloud (I was seeing the top of it — that’s how high up we were).
We made it to the village towards the bottom of the mountain.
It started with one small hut, covered in grass and built from wood. And then another, and then two more connected, but built upon a steep incline.
As we entered the village we saw a short man in rubber boots wearing a skull cap and a plastic bag to protect himself from the rain. Our guide introduced him. He was the newly elected mayor of this village of 140 homes.
After talking with the mayor, we interviewed as many people as we could. They talked about their dreams for the future, vibrant and lively. The solar lights, they said, were a sign of progress: they could be productive much longer. Their children could study at night.
I saw two women making a fire to cook dinner, filing their home with smoke. A young mother was washing dishes in the rain, her feet covered in mud. This was supposed to be the dry season, but torrential rains had been pounding those treacherous dirt roads we’d just traversed, ruining critical crops like coffee and cardamom.
It’s not just poverty these people were confronting, but the real impact of climate change and culturally-entrenched gender inequality. This modest little village was really at the front lines of the most important issues facing our world today.
In each of these villages we gained a deeper knowledge of what “change” looks like. Success brought inevitable challenges, such as the ones discussed in a community meeting we attended in Belize with Barefoot College’s Carmen Carmona.
“Today you have one problem: no light,” Carmen said. “But soon you will have many other problems. Concerns about collecting the payments, investing in future maintenance and many other things. With opportunity comes challenges, but if you work on these together, you will succeed.”
For his part, Xavier Juncadella Medina, Director of East Africa for Barefoot College, did not shy away from these challenges. He said his fulfilling work is fraught with problems, expected and unexpected. He mentioned the critical need to fund solar power equipment for these women when they return home from their training. Some, like in this village in Belize, already had their equipment financed. But others have to wait. Solar engineers return and confront red tape, financing and transit hurdles to bring the equipment they’ve been trained to install.
“We talk of hope and then time goes by, the funding or the bureaucracy stalls and hope can turn into disappointment, even hopelessness,” he says.
Indeed, when we first arrived in P’al, one hundred homes had power. Forty still did not, as the funding was only for those 100 homes. These discrepancies were complicated, the mayor said. It’s an imperfect world, but these programs make a huge difference even as they all wonder if they can do more.
At the Last Mile
Our final stop, the last two days of filming, were on the lush, ancient island of Zanzibar. After a day of filming the Solar Mamas saw and harvest honey at the regional center, Solar Mama Mashwamba invited us to visit her nearby home.
Our hired driver, Khaled, took off his baseball cap and wiped his eyebrows. He was 19 and came from the city of Stonetown, about an hour’s drive away. He was no stranger to poverty, the smells of diesel and decaying fish. And yet this village tucked in among the foliage surprised him. The houses were small, only a room or two, with rusted tin roofs, dirt floors and walls made of gathered rocks, wood or woven leaves, each with gaps large enough for the elements to peek through.
Inside Mashwamba talked confidently about her future. She and her fellow Solar Mamas had electrified this village. They had started earning money, thus overcoming deep religious and cultural traditions about everything women simply couldn’t do.
“I like seeing that power,” Mashawamba said, glancing at the solar light above her, before adding with a deep, resounding laugh, “I want more power.”
I think this film captures how that happens in real time, in real places, where solutions are the most unexpected. And this makes me look back at our naïve beginning and my worries about our impact and think, Yes, every bumpy mile has proved worth it.
“For every dollar invested in a woman in the developing world, 86 cents go back to her family, for health, education and better food. For every dollar a man earns, it’s not even 36 cents,” Barefoot College International CEO Meagan Fallone says.
Women are the untapped solution and underutilized resource in every country on Earth. When the obstacles are removed, their potential is limitless.
I never got over my need for more contact. Throughout it all, I wanted nothing more than to connect, bridge cultures, languages and differences. As the film begins to be shown in film festivals and networking events around the world, I am left with one striking impression above all else: the sisterhood around the world is making a difference. It is time. It is their time.
The Solar Mamas are the epitome of strong, brave and inspirational women. Their individual stories exemplify how far women can go, if only given the chances to grow.