Men don’t come out of Rafea: Solar Mama very well. The film was shown today at Sheffield Documentary Festival and in the Q&A with the directors afterwards it was suggested that it could have been called The world’s stupidest husband, as the attitude of the husband is so ridiculous.
Rafea: Solar Mama shows the development of a Bedouin woman in Jordan from illiterate tent-dweller to solar engineer. Thanks to the Barefoot college in India she is able to be trained as an expert in solar power. Barefoot college has been in operation since 1972 and is an example of India’s changing position in the world. The school is poor and ill-equipped, but nevertheless it is bringing in women from around the developing world and training them in something productive. India is not needing aid but is aiding others. The women usually chosen are grandmothers – because they have no incentive to move away from the village they live in. When they return to their homes after a six month course they have the knowledge to use solar power to electrify their villages.
You would have thought this was a good thing. You might think that there was no question that the Barefoot College was doing great work. However, even though the Jordanian Ministry of Environment is willing to send Rafea on the course her husband insists that she is not allowed to go. And his reasons don’t appear to be because he would die of love-sickness to be away from her for even a day. He spends most of his time with another wife – a situation that is accepted as perfectly normal.
The filmmakers are Egyptians Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim. They made the film as part of the Why Poverty campaign and a shorter version has been shown on the BBC. They do a nice line in orange sunsets and domestic close-ups, quickly building a picture of the lifestyle that Rafea and her family enjoy. Enjoy is the wrong word. Endure is more like it. We are shown the sparking electricity that they rely on, the thin tent walls that don’t keep the cold out. Rafea goes out collecting wood from the desert scrubland and says What a beautiful place. My first thought was that she was being ironic for the sake of the camera, but I don’t think she was being ironic at all. I think she meant it.
Her desire was not to escape – instead she wanted to lift herself and her village out of poverty. But she lives in Jordan, near the Iraq border, where it is seen as shameful for a teenage girl to be educated. With preposterous ideas like that bouncing around it is easy to see how excited Rafea was at this opportunity to become a solar engineer, having only had a few years of primary education previously.
The film has no voice over and relies on Rafea and the other characters to explain what is happening. This works well as the camera follows Rafea’s efforts to fight the opinions of tradition around her, her ambition pitting her against her husband and mother. ‘All we do is sit, drink tea and smoke cigarettes,’ she complains at one point, to which her mother replies, quite seriously, ‘It’s never hurt anyone.’
Education is the desperate need of communities like this. Especially education of the men. When a man can seriously claim that his wife is not allowed to go ‘more than five metres from the tent’ there are bigger problems to address than just solar power. Nevertheless Rafea: Solar Mama is an uplifting film with a positive message for the future of the world’s poor.