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Why Poverty? documentary series: Solar Mamas

An uneducated Bedouin mother from the Jordanian desert gets the chance to study to become a solar engineer, bringing power her community. However, learning about electrical components without being able to read, write or understand English is the easy part because taking up this opportunity means she can lose everything, including her children. Hazel Pfeifer reviews Why Poverty? documentary Solar Mamas (screening at IDFA under the name Rafea: Solar Mama).

The premise of this film is itself extraordinary. The Barefoot College in India takes illiterate women from all over the world and teaches them to become solar engineers. These women then go and set up colleges in their own countries and train other women to develop sustainable energy and improve the lives and economies of their home-towns. As a concept, it slots perfectly into the Why Poverty? series, looking at poverty and inequality around the world.

But this beautiful piece of film-making is about more than ticking the development boxes. It’s about family relationships, challenging social norms, and the power of expanding horizons. Directors Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim have crafted something rare; a pacey story full of poignant moments, gripping, humorous and intensely human.

Rafea lives with her four daughters in a hut in rural Jordan. The second wife of an unemployed Bedouin who comes and goes, her prospects are narrow, despite wanting to work and find a life purpose. When she and her friend Umm are taken to India to join the Barefoot College for six months, their world is turned upside down.

There are some spine-tingling moments when the women first meet and greetings are exchanged with no common language except smiles. The Kenyans in their colourful robes and jewellery teach the veiled Jordanians their native dance, a postcard for international relations and understanding that comes as naturally as the smiles. The women are taught through English, which few of them speak, and yet they learn to assemble solar panels and solder circuit boards – Columbians sitting side by side with Indians and Burkina Fasoans in a ramshackle workshop in dusty India.

But Rafea’s husband and family are unhappy and call her every day asking that she return. She is then faced with an impossible decision when her husbands threatens to divorce her and take her daughters unless she returns. When the camera follows her home, a family drama unfolds including the village elders and the charismatic Jordanian Minister of Education. But Rafea isn’t going to give up so easily. Now that she’s tasted freedom, her fighting spirit kicks in and she refuses to settle for life as it was.

This film is a triumph in many ways. Driven by the story as it unfolds, the deft hands of the directors simultaneously capture the tiniest detail and the bigger picture in the true art of story telling. Don’t miss it.

Solar Mamas will air as part of the BBC Storyville series on BBC Four on 2 December at 9pm. In case you miss this screening, the documentary will still be available on BBC iPlayer until 12 December.

If you live outside the UK then please check the Why Poverty website to see on which local channel you can watch the documentaries.

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Hazel is a freelance journalist from Dublin. Although reality TV is really not her thing, she feels it has done a certain amount to open people’s minds to the power of social observation, and therefore the wonder of documentaries. She has contributed to a number of magazines, including Monocle, IMAGE and The Irish Independent Life magazine. Guilty pleasure: old-school musicals.

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