In doing so, Dusun grandma Tarihing Masanim, 40, also managed to prove sceptics – who warned that she risked being "sold" in India – wrong.
As the sole participant from Malaysia at the renowned Barefoot College in Tilonia, the folks back home would now depend on her to solar electrify the 100 poor households there.
The necessary solar equipment is being shipped out from India under the auspices of the Sabah Women Entrepreneurs & Professionals Association (Swepa) Barefoot Solar Project.
Tarihing, who left in September, "graduated" recently with 35 other women from nine countries.
Chaperoned by Project Committee Member, Maria Joy Rowan, Tarihing was welcomed at Kota Kinabalu International Airport Monday night by a Swepa-Pacos Trust delegation after travelling for 16 hours from Tilonia in the State of Rajasthan (in western India).
"It took us eight and a half hours to reach Delhi from Tilonia by bus. The flight to Kuala Lumpur took another five hours before the two-and-a-half-hour connecting flight to Kota Kinabalu," said Maria.
On Tuesday, Tarihing, who has four children and nine grandchildren, was feted to a "welcome home" lunch reception organised by Project Committee Member Karen Wong and co-sponsored by Grandis Hotels & Resorts at Suria Shopping Mall.
Present to give her a surprise was her husband, Juprin Marudin, 51, also a tapper. She had expected to meet him at their village later in the day.
In her welcome address, Swepa President cum Project Adviser Jeanette Tambakau hailed Tarihing as a "village heroine" who survived the seemingly insurmountable odds in India (especially the winter cold) and been transformed by the Barefoot College.
"She will now empower the rural community. She will pioneer solar electrification at Kg Sonsogon Magandai once the solar equipment arrives from India in May," she said. The equipment comprises solar lighting units (solar panels, batteries and charge controllers) for 100 households and 100 rechargeable solar lanterns with LED lights.
Project Organising Chairperson Datuk Adeline Leong said Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman would be invited to officially launch the lighting up of the 100 homes at the village in June this year.
The project would be managed by Pacos Trust for the next five years in terms of repair and maintenance of solar equipment, and a monthly collection of RM30 from each household for sustainability of solar power supply.
Leong said the Swepa Executive Committee has approved the proposal to replicate the Barefoot Solar Project in neighbouring Kg Sungai Magandai, where two illiterate women from the village would be selected to undergo training at the Barefoot College in India.
Among the project partners at the function were Asian Forestry Company, Sabah (represented by Project Manager Leroy Ramanaidu and Project Officer, Community Development Programme, Juidywa Juas), Pacos Trust (represented by Executive Director Anne Lasimbang and Helen Morgan), Raleigh Borneo of Raleigh International (represented by Country Director Brandon Charleston) and independent blogger Casey Leong.
Leroy and Juidywa were responsible for taking Tarihing and her husband back to Kg Sonsogon Magandai, a five-hour ride from Kota Marudu Town, after the reception.
According to Leroy, Juprin was amazed at the drastic change in his wife.
"He told me so. They are simple folks. Six months ago, she could not have done that – speaking from the stage about her life-changing experience in India and sharing her thoughts."
Kota Marudu District Officer, Sualim Sanan, when met at the event, said Tarihing's new knowledge and international exposure have moulded her into a leader.
"I have confidence in her abilities. She now has the capacity to lead the community at Kg Sonsogon Magandai. I hope she will also demonstrate her leadership in other fields, apart from generating electricity from solar energy for the villagers," he said.
Other partners are Barefoot College, Government of India, Federal Government, Sabah State Government, UNDP Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme (GEF SGP which provided USD$50,000 for the project), Sabah Credit Corporation, Louis Pang Photography and volunteer Jennifer Anjek. Daily Express is the media partner.
Project Deputy Organising Chairperson, Hanaa Wong Abdullah, who gave a presentation on the project together with Tambakau, said it is still open to sponsorship by interested parties.
"As our project grows, we welcome any form of sponsorship from civic-conscious bodies intending to contribute. Similarly, we perceive the need to increase the manpower in our project committee for continued collaboration with our institutional and individual partners," she said. The five-member committee is now expanded to eight with the inclusion of Lasimbang, Morgan and Swepa Executive Secretary, Geraldine Ascunsion.
Also present were Deputy Chairperson of Sabah Women's Advisory Council (MPWS), Datuk Margaret Fung, and Council Members Joanna Datuk Kitingan (Director of Sabah Museum Department), Hjh Baiyah Hj Mahmon (IDS Senior Research Associate) and Julita Ontol (General Manager, Sabah and Labuan Regional Office, Strategic Communications Division), and Swepa Founder President Datuk Nancy Ho.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Photos : IMG 4917Z - 1. Side Bar : At the Sharing & Dialogue with Tarihing, she revealed her fear of death, saying she thought she would die in India because she did not know what was in store for her. "Although I didn't like the food in the beginning, I had no choice but to take it for survival and I didn't want to fall sick. And while travelling home from India, I was worried whether the plane would jatuh (fall from the sky). So I prayed hard for a safe journey, and was very relieved when we landed in Kota Kinabalu," she said. She also related her challenges and experiences at the Barefoot College from learning to fabricate, install, repair and maintain solar lighting units at the workshop (under the College's Barefoot Women Solar Engineers Programme) to using sign language for communication and surviving on Indian food. "Initially, it was a struggle to assemble the different components and make the lamps work because out of 10 lamps, five failed to light up at first. My teachers will tell me, 'No good.' "However, gradually, we mastered the process through recognising numbers and colours, and repetition. For instance, we were required to assemble the parts of the charge controller as many as 50 times to come up with 50 sets," she explained. Tarihing recalled how she was praised by the teachers who often said, "Malaysia Good" when comparing her performance with that of participants from other countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh, Lesotho, the Philippines, Cuba, Berundi and South Sudan. "This did not go down well with my counterparts. I know because mereka marah dengan saya (they were angry with me), so I told the teachers to praise them too." The good-hearted Tarihing guided the weaker ones who approached her for help in assembling the components. Photo : IMG 1523 or 1535 - Tarihing (right,) assisted by interpreter Anne Lasimbang, sharing her fears and experiences at the Sharing & Dialogue session. ENDSa