Fireflies but kanthari guns for a soft revolution (Kurian Pampadi)

Published on 18 March, 2023
Fireflies but kanthari guns for a soft revolution (Kurian Pampadi)

Kanthari is the hottest of all chilies special to South and South East Asia including Kerala, in the south western corner of India. But kanthari in Kerala capital is a very sharp global educator with cutting edge. It has been grooming social workers from across the globe to take on new challenges posed by hunger, homelessness, physical and intellectual maladies, etc in a Bohemian way.  

Anuradha of Narikkuravar community, social outcasts in TN, supported by NGO Aldu.

Far away from the madding crowd, kanthari is operating from an obscure but sylvan village of Mukaloormoola, Ookode, in the suburbs of Thiruvananthapuram. There is an international airport, rail station, wide roads, enlightened people, and a bevy of nature around it. kanthari has already produced 258 alumni from 53 countries running more than 150 civil society organizations engaging communities for change and survival. About 50 of the alumni came from India. 

John Peter, founder of Aldu Foundation with a Narikkuravar target group.

Wafted by the cool breeze of Vellayani lake, the 3.5 acre campus of kanthari was designed and built by Sajan of Costford in his mentor Laurie Baker’s proverbial red brick terracotta style. It was founded by inseparable companions Paul Kronenberg from the Netherlands and Sabriye Tenberken from Germany to “empower social visionaries” for which they registered a Charitable Trust in 2005.

kanthari, a learning centre with a difference in Kerala capital.
“Sabriye, 51, is a unique person. She became blind at the age of 12. But she opened her inner eye towards a colourful and scintillating world around her. She learnt kayaking, skiing, and other skills at a gymnasium for the blind in Marburg, Germany.

She studied Central Asian Sciences at the University of Bonn. One part of the study was Tibetology. During her studies, Sabriye could not take notes in Tibetan because there was no Braille script for the language. That’s why she created it. This was seen by a Tibetan scholar, who took the script to Tibet. He was asked who could come to teach the blind. The scholar knew Sabriye and said that she would be the one. 
And that’s how Sabriye went to Tibet in 1997. Wherever  she went on horseback, she found many blind children who were left alone in dark rooms. Blindness is seen as a punishment or curse for deeds done in a previous life.
Sabriye met Paul, who was backpacking in Tibet in 1997, and in 1998 they both returned to start the first school and vocational training centre for the blind.  Their service was so popular that the authorities in Beijing conferred one of the highest national honours on her.  

Chacko, Ria with Kerlinda War in Sohra, Meghalaya and Gumbo Majubwa in Bagamoyo, Tanzania 

Awards and honours are aplenty for kanthari founders.  Sabriye was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. The Queen of the Netherlands knighted both Sabriye and Paul. The City of Marburg awarded her with the ‘Marburger Leuchtfeuer’ in 2009. Time magazine honoured her twice and she appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. Sabriye’s book ‘My Path Leads to Tibet’ is also a winner.  
“We were together in Tibet,” Paul, 54, recalled in a candid talk at kanthari recently.  “We decided to pool our energies and do something for the unorganized poor and the downtrodden of the world. The best way was to train some committed persons to spread out as ambassadors in their respective spaces. 
“Once the school and vocational training centre for the blind, our Braille Printing press, and the self-integration program were set up, we were looking forward and asked ourselves, what is next? We thought that the best next step would be to set up a leadership centre in which those change makers would be able to collect all skills and tools required to start their own effective impact-making organizations. 

Sabriye and Paul receiving Maya Koene Peace Award in 2018  

Everything is different in kanthari. Educating the 25 residential inmates selected every year in gurukula style akin to ancient India’s Nalanda vishwa vidyalay was a challenge. Sometimes classes are conducted in open air with live demonstrations of potential target groups, sometimes visually or intellectually challenged kids or deaf and blind kids of special schools. 

The course is based on experiential learning and therefore it requires interactive participation. It is all about learning with and from each other. Therefore, instead of teachers there are catalysts, instead of students kanthari has participants. Instead of classes, there are sessions that are held in different locations, inside as well under the blue sky on the campus.

A selection of kantharis at large. 

Training, boarding, and lodging at kanthari are absolutely free. Kanthari has 23 staff members. There are three permanent catalysts; Riya Orison and Chacko Jacob. Sabriye is full-time while Paul a part-time catalyst. During parts of the course, guest faculty is brought in. They may include veteran alumni from far and near. Sabriye’s mother Cornelia van der Horst-Tenberken, a former Theatre Director, was one of the  guest catalysts.  

Sabriye’s mother Cornelia teaches at the lakefront; the couple holds Mother Teresa award 

kanthari’s first batch graduated in 2009. Since then, the number of aspirants grew substantially. Annually. approximately 300 were called for interviews. Academic credentials do not play a role; Field experience, the courage of conviction, and willingness to take on new challenges weigh more. Sometimes dropouts get preferred over PhDs! All applicants should be 22+ years of age, (no upper age limit), have intermediate English and basic computer skills, and carry a plan to address a social or environmental issue.

NC Gautham with colleagues of his Kasargod NGO Fireflies

Anuradha, 18, is a beneficiary of Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu based Aldu Foundation. kanthari-trained social activist John Peter is her mentor.  An MSW, he launched his Foundation in 2014 to help out the Narikkuruvars to which Anuradha belongs. Narikkuruvars are social outcasts as they used to kill nary or fox for eating. They were not allowed to draw water from the village wells. 

Oluwakemi Odusanya of Lagos, Nigeria, with her Eagles Voice colleagues

John Peter came in focusing on how to save the community from social ostracization by educating them and coaxing the young ones to schools. They no longer hunt foxes as killing wild animals has been banned but the stigma persists. The word Aldu means ‘different’ representing the uniqueness of Narikkuravar culture. 
In spite of all efforts, Anuradha went to school only up to the 8th class. She has three sisters of equal disposition. They help their parents with waste collection. Anuradha herself helps parents sell balloons and toys on the beach. “She has been asking me to help her find a better job. I should try with the Auroville people in Pondicherry,” John told me. 

kanthari campus on Vellayani lake; Admin Ajith, Joseph Mathew, Ramesh, Ratheesh

There are umpteen Anuradhas in states within India and nations across Asia and Africa who have benefitted from organizations that have started kantharis. It is a kind of revolution in a silent way. No fireworks or drone bombardments. Word is spread mostly with the help of social media. And believe me, there will not be any dearth of funds for the right cause though one will have to hammer for it.
Paul and Sabriye were just back from a stock-taking tour of a few African nations when I arrived at kanthari. In June they will again be off to Europe to accept the Martin Buber Plaquette, an international recognition. 
I saw Chacko and Ria walking in for a moment but could not talk to them. They had just returned from review meetings in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda. It is heartening that the school follows up on its alumni’s work ensuring they pursue precepts learned to practice in right earnest. Some of them are running special schools, some are involved in organizing self-help groups for women and others address environmental matters.
“Do you have any one of your alumni arrested and sent to jail?” I again asked Paul irreverently.
“Unfortunately yes. We have one alumni who ended up in prison. Yet, she has not committed any crime.” Paul answered: “She is schizophrenic and when she ran out of the proper medication, she started suffering from acute depression. At times turning violent, and hence her sister got her admitted to a mental hospital. There, due to a lack of understanding and a lack of qualified staff, they didn't really know what to do with her, so she was transferred to a women's prison.”

Paul related to me what Nosisa wrote to them when she applied for training: ”What literally fuelled my dream of starting an HIV/AIDS organization was the fact that I also became affected when I lost my father due to the very illness. He was an old man when he passed away at 72…. In my social project I would like to consider the Church as a foundation for an effective, scaled-up response to HIV/AIDS.
 “We are now working to help her by getting the appropriate medicines to be sent to Zimbabwe, ”Paul assured me.  

Nosisa is a freak case. Almost all trainees ensure the support of the authorities in their efforts as catalysts for change. Every nation needs change. Change from within, in a peaceful way. That was what Gandhiji visualized. Was it not?”. 

Learn more at;  Pictures courtesy kanthari

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Vaikom madhu 2023-03-19 07:30:48
Excellent story.
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