Global Issues

Barefoot in Tilonia

Written by Muriel Inkster
Having retired from my final job as a Senior Committee Clerk from Orkney Islands Council, and subsequently done a three-year graduate course at Orkney College UHI, I spotted a report in a students' newsletter, urging students to see the work being done in Barefoot College, Tilonia, Rajasthan

Founded in 1972, Barefoot College teaches practical knowledge and skills to address problems such as health and sanitation, rural unemployment, income generation, and social awareness.

Looking at the ‘five non-negotiable values’ which Barefoot uses – equality, collective decision-making, self-reliance, decentralisation and austerity – I wondered about my ability to cope, especially not being of the muscle-bound or gadget-literate variety (and being an OAP too!).

All was well, however, and Bunker, the Director of Barefoot, agreed that I come to the college the following February for about six weeks.

I decided to go via Jaipur and have a couple of days in a posh hotel to get my head ready to ‘think myself into it’. Arrived in Jaipur as the light was coming in, and it looked awfully quiet, except for a few cows meandering in the street. (I’m a great cow-fan and I really miss them in Orkney when they go inside for the winter.) After a short sleep I got speaking to some of the auto-rickshaw men touting for trade, and, in pidgin English (yes, me too!) I began to get the feel of the place. They were really nice to me and stopped a passing elephant so I could photo it, and we spoke to a few cows. I also mentioned Tilonia – most of them had heard of the village, if not the college.

So, I arrived in Tilonia – two hours away from Jaipur. As instructed, I checked in with Vasu, and was allocated a room in the guesthouse. My room was upstairs at the corner, overlooking everything. I had the best night’s sleep since leaving home. The windows were screened against mosquitos – so you could open the window, leaving the screening on.

I chose two particular things to be involved in – Solar and Communications, although there were added things for me to be included in as an observer, such as water harvesting, night schools, etc. I felt I wasn’t stalwart enough to go down wells and fix hand pumps etc!! And visits to neighbouring villages formed part of the extras.

Solar (led by Bhagwatnandan)

Most of my time was spent in this section. I am not a ‘natural’ – but I turned out to be a dab hand with a screwdriver, if not with a soldering iron. The lady master solar trainers were really nice to me. We compared the shapes of our hands, skin colours, etc. They noted my lack of jewellery, except for earrings, and a cheap watch. (Even the men and boys wear earrings – wee studs.) Finally, I made an ‘approved’ (yes, it was tested) transformer, after visiting the old campus school – I’m the type that needs a diagram as well as being shown! I also turned out masses of two-pin electrical connectors.

I went to a pump with the ladies for water – they carried the container on their heads, with a wee ring (like a doughnut) to form a sort of cushion on the head.

We worked outside (on the roof) a lot – it was very pleasant. They laid out mats to shield themselves from the concrete. There was a lot of speaking – very companionable.

Communications (led by Ram Niwas)

I made a puppet – mine was the only blue-eyed one. He had a moustache like an Army major. The other puppets were mostly Indian. I had no experience of puppet-making whatsoever. I learnt how to build up the faces – which had to be a bit emphasised for puppet shows – like with big eyes, big ears, etc. Then the clothes were sewn on. Heads (of puppets) and wee animals etc were dried on the MiG fighter aircraft wings (the plane was gifted to Bunker).


Here, children are not banned, there’s graffiti on the body of the aircraft, and everybody can enter the cockpit, etc. Communications deals with issues of social concern – drinking, money-lending, equality, women’s rights. People didn’t really clap at the end of a puppet show – it seemed sort of just like reading a newspaper, really.
The rest of my time at Barefoot is made up of wee headlined remembrances.


The first night my impressions were of a comfy bed, nice bright lighting (solar), an electric socket, mirror, pegs (for hanging things on) – everything you could want.   Religious noises – they sounded like that to me. It sounded quite comforting on my first ‘real’ Indian night – strange but universal. Dogs woofing – to see off any marauders. Despite the melee, they seemed peaceful and welcoming to me! I was woken up in the morning by pump noises (water). Life begins early – when the air is still cool. Bird song, in the trees, but not too close – not on top of your head! Could hear the sound of what I thought were crickets at night. Little boys played ‘cricket’ with Tom, an English longer-term volunteer than me. I could hear the peeping of the Tilonian train – reminded me of the Stromness-Scrabster boat arrival (but more gentle than the boat noises).


The toilets were flushed with a bucket of water. To shower, I used a jug and bucket, to pour water over, the ‘mouseholes’ in the walls took the water away – the floor dried up by the time I had had breakfast. (I now recognise this from the film Monsoon Wedding!) I washed clothes in a bucket, set up on the more body-friendly level of a dyke. Indians prefer to get down to floor level!

Dogs and a Cat

The campus dogs seemed to be owned by no-one. The role of being a dog seems to be so much different from in this country. There is a ‘dog box’ outside the mess for left-overs. Dogs never pinched off your plate – they just waited for an offering – very polite! They seem to lie around all day, basking in the hollows in the sand, and howled all night. Dogs couldn’t catch a biscuit, obviously no-one had played with them. Indians should laugh at us (Brits) for speaking about owning a dog.

The campus cat (grey, ‘strippit’), wailed a lot at meal times but, like the dogs, never tried to pinch off your plate or beg. The cat was allowed in the mess, but not the dogs.

Goats, Bullocks and Lizards

The goats came and went, streaming past the college, more or less at 9 am and 5 pm. I just loved the goats. Lizards came into rooms, via the airholes at the tops of walls.

Trips Out

Bhagwatnandan took us (this was my favourite trip) to see a solar-electrified village.   Jean (a man from Africa now from the UN) was there with Tom (aforementioned), and I got taken too.


The trip there was amazing, heartbreakingly beautiful wee villages, but desperately poor. We stayed to see the lighting come on. This method of lighting, the villagers say, has enhanced their interaction both within the family and with the wider community.

I liked the speed and noise on the roads – big lorries had a sign up to say ‘blow horn’ so there were lots of horn noises, on top of (often) music. Lorries had tinselly bits of decoration on them.

Also, that day, we stopped at Ram Karan’s (he’s in charge of rainwater harvesting) cattle pond, done from water recharge. Most attractive and peaceful.


On trips out, there was great curiosity as to who I was. So ‘Scotland’ and where it was, got mentioned a lot. I was surprised to see women working on the roads and in the fields, wearing Indian costume. It was like a filmset.

Women’s Festival

Ram Karan, as well as being in charge of water, deals with women-issues. He is very busy, expending lots of energy. One of my photos shows all the women in a big marquee.


There was a lot of talking (in Hindi I presumed, but maybe they were speaking in Mawari, the local dialect). Barefoot seemed to play a big role. Mrs Roy (Bunker’s wife) spoke a lot, together with another woman. I couldn’t understand, but the main issue was the (then) new Freedom of Information Act. There were other smaller tents.


I went to a pre-meeting in Tilonia for the women (glad I wasn’t on note-taking!). There seems to be two ways of clapping – hands back-to-back when things were not approved, and ordinarily for things approved.

Peaceful Times

I liked sitting up on the roof between times, near my quarters. Just soaking up the atmosphere and overlooking things. Wee squirrelly things were everywhere, flying through the trees – they didn’t come in like the lizards, but I saw one (probably a chipmunk) silhouetted in the morning sun against the window. After dinner (now in the dark), it was lovely to sit out and watch the moon and the stars. Bats too were deciphered, as they ‘floated’ about their business.

Pay – Social  Audit

Pay is decided by the people by vote. The Director doesn’t necessarily earn the most.   People are keen on social audit – it is explained to the people where the money went. I didn’t see an audit, but it is recognised as being important.

Night School

I went to a couple of night schools. Mostly for girls who have to work on farms during the day.
Barefoot people act as Secretaries to the Children’s Parliament.


All meals were provided in the mess – breakfast, lunch, dinner. Tea-stop at 5 o’clock (chai – very sweet – often I had three cups!). It was nice under the trees, sitting on the stone benches. Everybody goes for the chat, rather than the chai. The women, however, didn’t seem to join in. One day, as I arrived with Shivraj (a disabled young man) on his specially adapted bike, one man started (looking at me!) to talk (in Hindi or the local language) loudly, but with a Scottish lilt to his accent. I picked up on this and made a pose for the first step of the Highland Fling – much laughter!

Everybody washes their own plates, and sits on the floor. There are one or two low stools for old stiffies (foreign)! Everybody is also responsible for cleaning working areas.

One day I was doled out mashed tatties (no spices!) – cooked just for me!


I did lots of sorting through. I didn’t understand whether the small items were for reuse, and definitely some were for scrap, but anyway I put things in wee heaps and another person could further sort them out. It’s difficult when you can neither use language nor past experience, and often you seem to be in receipt of ‘conflicting advice’!


Open Countryside

The college (including the old campus) is set in open countryside – beautiful, atmospheric, and field workers spoke as you passed.


If salt is the scourge of Orkney, sand is the scourge of Tilonia. Even computer screens are caked with it – perhaps the existence of the desert compensates. It is truly as nice as living by the sea.

Why go, and what did I learn?

I’m interested in education (always have been), and am a lifelong learner myself, and I had just done a degree.

I had prepared myself quite well mentally beforehand and had decided that no matter what happened, illness etc – I would just be ‘with the Indians’. I was never ever afraid. It’s nice to let what you don’t understand just go past you. Again, plenty of time – the college had taken (then) more than 30 years to get this far.

The Barefoot College of Tilonia is, by offering practical advice and assistance, helping poor people to help themselves. Bunker is often heard to say that you don’t have to be literate to learn and that Barefoot doesn’t equate literacy with intelligence.


Bunker to Orkney

More than two years since my visit to Tilonia, Bunker was passing through France (work orientated) and I put it to Howie that he should invite him to Orkney for the Science Festival. Bunker is an exceedingly charismatic man – and, lo and behold, he came to Orkney in 2008.

Technology has moved on since my visit – both here and in Tilonia, and now Tilonia is doing much more in the way of education – e.g. dentistry, acupuncture, etc, etc.

Bunker’s talk was very well received. Wouldn’t it be nice to invite him back again?

On a very positive note, Barefoot has been named in the Top 100 Global NGOs as number 15 in the world, and first in India.


Three years after my first visit, having done a couple of weeks or so on a ‘formal’ holiday in northern India, I revisited Tilonia for a fortnight.

It was different from the first time – and loads of African grandmothers were there receiving formal education in solar activities. They were nearing the end of their course and I struck up a passing relationship with one or two of them – some could speak a minimum of English. Up on the roof (activities often seem to happen on the roof in India), we had a wee dance between times. But then it was ‘lessons resumed’.

For more information on the work of Barefoot College, visit

About the author

Muriel Inkster

Muriel, born in Orkney, worked for 40 years in Rosyth, Paris, London and Orkney. Her interests include travel (while, she adds, still fit enough!), and language (in all its forms).