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Kanthari: A School For Social Engineers

    (Photographs by Avran Ittyipe)

When I have to I want to:
Sherin Noordheen, 34, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala
Pinching point: “My father committed suicide when I was six years old. I grew up with that stigma. I too had suicidal tendencies. I want to talk about it openly to remove the stigma around suicides.”
Sherin who has a master’s in MSW, used to work with IT companies before she quit to travel around the world. While planning to start a cafe to help other people with suicidal tendencies she heard about kanthari and her application was accepted. “I want to start a travelling cafe called ‘Let’s Live Café’. I want to take it to the rural areas where people can walk in and share their problems over a cup of coffee. What I found was that there is no societal support for young adults in Kerala for depression and prevention of suicide. I would like to train volunteers and the cafe would be a link between psychologists/psychiatrists and those with depression. I want people to come out in the open and speak about their issues..”Sherin, a participant at Kanthari, is determined to realise her dreams.

 All smiles: Paul and Sabriye

Naming an institute after a small, potent chilly, which grows wild in Kerala, is unusual, especially if a kanthari (Bird’s eye chilly) can incapacitate your senses if you happen to chew it. The lesser known fact about the kanthari is that it has medicinal values too. However, it seems like a fitting name for an institute which studies failures and tries to find solutions for them. The institute, which sits on the edge of Vellayani lake, Thiruvananthapuram, believes that degrees and achievements are not the only things that sanction human values. Kanthari stresses that dreams and grit are even more essential to be a social visionary. And those who pass the institute’s fiery course become full-fledged kantharis: all ready to change the world in a small potent way.

Within its portals, a blind catalyst, as the teachers are called at kanthari, leans forward, listening intently to a radio program about the lake, produced by the participants (students). At the end of the recording, the catalyst and co-founder, Sabriye Tenberken, claps her hands enthusiastically appreciating what the participants have produced. “Work on it a little more, add a few dialogues in Malayalam,” she advises. Then she whistles the call of the Indian Koel, “I am not a bird-watcher, but you have used the cries of European birds instead of the birds of the region. Record the call of the local birds,” she adds.
Tenberken, 46, who lost her sight when she was just nine years old, says being blind is what kanthari would call her “pinching point”. She overcame her disability both by dealing with it and training herself to train others. “We take a maximum of 25 participants in a year and we don’t look at their academic background at all. We have a mix of participants with no education, PhD holders and degree holders. However, one of the criteria to get admission here is that the participant should have a plan for social change as well as a pinching point. They should have dealt with some adversity in their life and should have overcome it. Kanthari is not a place for healing but a training ground so we cannot have someone who is still trying to deal with some trauma. The selection process is rigorous because the participants should have already changed from within and that must be sustainable. The applicants are interviewed several times by a panel and then by psychologists to see if they have it in them to persevere with their projects against all odds. For the 2017-2018 leadership course, we received 360 applications from around the world but we selected only 24.” Kanthari, Sabriye explains, puts emphasis on experiential learning by simulating real life situations. When Outlook visited kanthari, the participants were busy preparing a campaign to save Vellayani Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the district. One group was preparing questionnaires for all the stakeholders: fishermen, farmers, local administrators, environmentalists, panchayat members, the local MLAs and Shashi Tharoor, MP of Thiruvananthapuram, who had made a few statements about protecting the lake in his speeches.

 Discussing the radio play with Sabriye
What is a blind woman from Germany and, her partner Paul Kronenberg, a mechanical engineer from Holland, doing in Kerala?
Tenberken, after studying Tibetology at the Bonn University, left the comforts of her home in 1997 and set out on an adventure to Lhasa to find blind children to create a spring board to integrate them into mainstream society.  Her family was supportive but friends in Germany and the people in Tibet whom she met, thought she was stark raving mad.“The pain is not in being blind but how society treats you. Society marginalises you for you are a liability. I enrolled in a specialised blind school where we had to take part in risk sports to give us mobility and the confidence to be part of the mainstream. When I finished I wanted to help others like me. At that time someone told me about Tibet so I studied Tibetology. In order to take notes in class I created the Braille script for the Tibetan language. I got the idea of starting a training centre for the blind. In Tibet, it is believed that blindness is a punishment for what you have done in your past life, so blind children are just locked away in a room. They are not educated and not even taught to walk. I went on horseback looking for blind children in the rural areas of Tibet.”
Kronenberg, who Tenberken calls her hardware man, smiles as he recalls how he met Sabriye. “I bumped into Sabriye in the Banakshol hostel in Lhasa. I was backpacking through the area so I was wondering what she was doing there. Obviously she was not there for sightseeing. When she told me that she wanted to start a project for the blind in Tibet, I was immediately fascinated for she seemed one determined woman. I told her I would join her if she ever starts her project. Eight months later when I was back in Holland and was busy with my work as a service provider, I got a call from Sabriye that she was setting off to Tibet to start a school for blind children. It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to decide what to do with my life. I quit my job and within five days I joined her.”
In Tibet, a major challenge that the two faced was how to give blind children hope for the future. To solve this they started a dream factory. “I still remember the time we asked our students to think of their future. We wanted them to dream. Norbu, an eight-year-old Tibetan boy, said he wanted to become a taxi driver. We didn’t discourage him but when we asked him about his dream two years later, he said ‘Well, maybe it’s better I start a taxi-company and run it.’ Kronenberg’s pinching point is that from age 11 till 17 he had no skin on his back. His back was speckled with small boils but an allergic reaction to the medication removed not just the boils but also his skin. “Children started to avoid me because of this. I too was marginalised but luckily I overcame it. At kanthari, I am mainly responsible for the operational management. When selecting participants, we don’t look much at pre-training but focus more on motivation. It is easy to educate people who are motivated, but difficult to motivate educated people.”
Tenberken and Kronenberg set up a preparatory school for blind children in Lhasa and a vocational training farm in Shigatse. Blind students could chose to be trained in making cheese and dairy products, compost production, baking bio-bread, animal husbandy, knitting, carpet weaving, cooking... Sometime in 2003,they wanted to start a similar “Braille without Borders” program in South India.  That’s when Jim Yardley, a journalist, wrote about their dream in the New York Times. And a Keralite, Naveen Ramachandran, reading the article in Houston, took the next flight down and introduced them to Kerala. The couple stayed at Ramachandran’s ancestral home and fell in love with Kerala.“We loved the abundance of nature-the flowers, the smell, the sounds and the water. In 2009, we started kanthari but we did not confine it to the blind. The participants are from the margins of society from all over the world and they are trained to start projects and help others,” says Sabriye.
The kanthari curriculum is a journey of five acts. The first act offers a hands on learning experience in a fictitious country called Tansalesea.The participants learn about the constitution of Tansalesea, the banking system,the legal system and other organisations. They also learn how to deal with the challenges that afflict Transalesea. They learn about campaign management, fundraising, how to deal with the media, develop websites, how to communicate, public speaking etc... The participants develop their projects at kanthari itself. It could be social entrepreneurship, environmental conservation, youth empowerment, peace building, HIV projects, agricultural projects, helping street children, waste management, animal conservation etc... At the end of seven months the participants go back to the place of origin to begin their projects. If they are serious and are able to start fund raising, kanthari gives them a stipend of $ 400 per month for five months. “We mentor the participants through weekly Skypecalls and help them to solve problems they face.”
Interestingly, every participant has a story to tell: a story of pain, a story of horror, a story of conflict, a story of a love affair gone wrong and these stories from all over the world intertwine into a single strand at kanthari. The participants then find new direction for their stories and new beginnings... In the last 8 years, kanthari has produced 160 graduates of which over 125 are running their projects successfully reaching out to thousands of people. 
Here are few more participants of the batch of 2017-2018

Sadhana Nayak, 35, Keonjhar, Orissa
Pinching Point: “I was affected by domestic violence for many years. I was prevented from working by my husband’s conservative family even though I have a post graduate degree in English Literature and MSW. I lost one child and now I am a single parent supporting a child.”
Sadhana had learnt to steel herself to deal with her personal problems. She prepared herself to stop the violence. When her husband was unwell she was forced to work but when he recovered, her husband’s family asked her to stop working. She says, “My husband was a bus driver and I had become the state trainer by then and once he became well he started to violently assault me. I want to help other women who are affected by domestic violence. In the tribal areas of Keonjhar, domestic violence, sexual harassment in the work place is common. These poor women never speak out because they are afraid they will lose their jobs. I want to start an NGO that would provide skill development to women, help them start Self-Help Groups to make small products, tell them about personal laws, health education, sex education, about their rights.”

Biju Simon, 37, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala
Pinching Point: “I am a college dropout. I also dropped out of the seminary. I want to educate children in shelter homes and provide skill development.”
Simon moved from a vernacular medium to English medium when he joined college for his economics degree. He could not comprehend what was being taught and though he bought Malayalam guides they did not help much and he failed his subjects. He soon stopped attending college. He later joined the seminary to become a priest and found that was not his calling either. “While working for a shelter home among orphans I found that though Kerala has high literacy, the children of the shelter homes could not read or write. They would go to the government school and sit on the back benches and back at the shelter homes there would be no one to guide them. They don’t have the skills to get meaningful employment either. At 18, they are thrown out of the shelter homes. I know of many instances when these boys come back to the shelter homes but they are not allowed in as the rules don’t permit them to. They stand at the gates pleading with officials if they can be taken back in. They don’t have jobs so they take to drugs, alcohol and thuggery. I plan to start a project called Ether India (Clear Skies) where training is imparted to caretakers in shelter homes. The children too pick up skills like photography, driving they can be employable.”

 Chris Mukasa, Arthanas Matoonga and Pannavat Veeraburinon eager to set out on their own

Chris Mukasa, 29, Kenya
Pinching point: “When I was 8 years old I remember my father beating my mother. My father was a alcoholic. I had four siblings and we were all hungry. There was no dinner and there my father was beating my mother. I could not understand what was happening so I asked him what he was doing. My father walked out of our home that night and never came back. My mother and the five of us hugged each other tight and sang songs to forget our hunger pangs.”
Mukasa found solace in art. He started an art project called Fatuma’s voice. Fatuma was a 50 year old woman who was unable to speak. The average person, according to Mukasa, speaks 20,000 words a day but Fatuma has not spoken for 50 years and she has millions of words trapped within her. These words keep accumulating each day and if nothing is done, she will become a time bomb ready to explode. “Fatuma is a metaphor that represents Kenya, which gained independence about 50 years ago.Most African youth like myself, have self-censored their voice and disengaged from the process of social change. This is deep-rooted in a rigid colonial-based education curriculum, unhealthy religious beliefs, and restrictive cultural ideologies. Fatuma's Voice has been using art, poetry and music to reaffirm youth about the importance of their voice and social participation but I found that it was unable to instigate change in society. So now, at kanthari I am learning how to transform this weekly forum into an intercontinental caravan that would actually bring about change.”

Arthanas Matongo, 44, Harare, Zimbabwe
Pinching Point: “My six sisters were married off when they were just children way below the legal age of marriage. When my best friend and childhood sweetheart was married off at the age of 15 to an old man in my village, my heart broke. I want to start a project to end child marriage in Zimbabwe.”
Arthanas has been an activist helping his sister with her HIV project for nearly three decades. He is divorced and also has in his care besides his own three children, his sister’s two children. His sister died of AIDS and left her two children to his care. Another sister committed suicide as a result of child marriage. “Polygamy and child marriage is rampant in my village. I want to educate the people about this. These girls are still children when they are married off. And they are beaten by their husbands if they are found playing. I want to go back and try and change the culture, the norms and behaviour of the people. Unemployment and poverty is a problem so people get their daughters married off to get a bride price. In Zimbabawe the girl’s family gets money for the bride. I have to also develop their skills so people can find employment.”

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(An edited version of this article was first published by Outlook Magazine)


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