The ‘Stinging’ Change Agents
An organisation in Kerala, named after a local variety of chilli, is helping people with disabilities transform into forces of good instead of remaining victims of circumstance, says Sabin Iqbal
2015-01-17 , Issue 3 Volume 12
What would have happened if a young Indian lawyer in apartheid-affected South Africa was not pushed out of a railway cabin for which he held a ticket?
We all have our “Gandhi moment” at some point or another. It’s that moment when we feel an irresistible inner push to do something, anything, to change the practice of injustice around us.
But often we let it die down. Unless there is a steely conviction to do whatever it takes to bring about a change, we let that moment pass.
But at kanthari (all letters are written in lower case for symbolic equality), the “Gandhi moment” gets worked on relentlessly, sharpened like a piece of flint.
kanthari is a place where you feel the tangible presence of the spirit of change — a powerful surge of “I-can-do-it” conviction — sweep over you. Located on the banks of the bucolic Vellayani Lake on the outskirts of Kerala’s capital city, Thiruvananthapuram, kanthari has, in five years, sharpened, emboldened and equipped 98 “social change agents” from 35 countries.
Sixty-five projects are currently underway in different parts of Asia and Africa in a bid to better the living conditions of people knocked down by the vagaries of social practice, superstitions and blatant injustice.
But why the name kanthari?
“We were looking for a new terminology for social changers,” says Sabriye Tenberken, who co-founded the international innovation centre with her partner Paul Kronenberg in 2005.
“We used to call them social entrepreneurs but ‘entrepreneur’ has a business connotation (to it), and we wanted to move away from it,” adds Tenberken, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
Then, one afternoon, Tenberken happened to bite into a small, innocuous-looking chilli. “It exploded in my mouth,” she says, remembering her “kanthari moment”. Kanthari is a small but very spicy chilli that grows wild in every backyard of Kerala and is also rich in medicinal properties.
Tenberken believes every social change agent has to be like a kanthari — seemingly innocuous in appearance but leaving behind an unforgettable impact.
A kanthari is also symbolic of those who have the guts to challenge regressive traditions, who have a fire in their belly and a lot of innovative ideas to make a positive difference.
“For us, a kanthari will become the symbol of a new type of leader — a leader from the margins of society,” says Tenberken, 44.
Samuel Odwar, from Uganda, is one of them. The fifth child in a polygamous family of 11 children and himself a father of three, including a deaf child, this Special Needs teacher suffered violent atrocities at the hands of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which had abducted him when he was 18.
LRA abducts children and forcefully turns them into soldiers as they believe “children are sinless, so they could kill”.
But Odwar escaped, and now wants to work against the superstitions in his society about children born with special needs. “When he was two months old, my first born contracted malaria and lost his hearing. What affected me the most after that was the attitude of the community towards my family, with a disabled child. They mocked me and laughed at me and some said it was a result of my parents’ sin,” says Odwar.
“I noted that children with disabilities are suffering even at the hands of their own parents, as they are locked indoors and have no freedom of participation,” Odwar adds, gazing at the herons landing and taking off on the still, olive-hued waters of the lake.
He misses home. But the fire in his belly has not been dulled. “I may be insignificant but I want to root out superstitions from my society.”
Similarly, Sarita Lamichhane, who is visually impaired, wants change in her country, Nepal.
Lamichhane’s “Gandhi moment” was when she was physically harassed by a man in a bus and then accused of lying about it.
“Some time ago, while I was commuting in public transport across Kathmandu, a man harassed me physically, and worse, he accused me of lying and said, ‘You blame me because you cannot see. Only if you have eyes can you speak the truth’. I was taken aback by that man’s words and vowed to take action. I may be visually impaired, but I have the determination and capability to overcome physical barriers,” says Lamichhane.
“I have a dream to open a consulting centre where visually-impaired women can be trained in job skills, learn self-defence and gain confidence,” she adds.
In much the same way, Tapiwa Gwen Lisa Marange from Harare, Zimbabwe works towards building a society in which people with albinism have equal opportunities and are not sneered at.
“I am a person with albinism and I have a dream,” Marange says.
“I want to open a centre that can be seen as a lighthouse for people with albinism. In Zimbabwe, people with albinism are marginalised, stigmatised and are subjected to (many) superstitious beliefs,” she adds.
Marange has experienced abuse and rejection herself, and is thus determined to bring about a change.
“I have seen and experienced abuse, but it has strengthened me and I feel more prepared and ready to help transform the lives of my peers, so that they can come out of their shells like I did,” Marange adds.
Coming from Nigeria, ranked as one of the most ‘cyber-fraudulent’ nations in the world, Felix Iziamoh is no stranger to cyber crimes.
There are many people in Nigeria formerly convicted of cyber crimes. “I have come to kanthari to learn how to start a project that will redirect those who have been convicted of cyber crime,” says Iziamoh.
These are among the 19 participants at kanthari this year, learning the ropes of starting social innovation projects.
Tenberken and Kronenberg researched kanthari ’s characteristics in detail before rebranding the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs (IISE) as kanthari.
“kanthari comes in five colours: green, yellow, orange, red and purple. Each one is dedicated to a different type of social change agent,” adds Tenberken, as Kronenberg types out his emails in their office with a poetry-inspiring view of the lake.
Green kanthari stands for “initiators” who want to create ethical social change by starting grassroots projects with innovative approaches – such as schools for the marginalised, training centres for the visually-impaired, environmental projects.
Yellow kantharis create products, strategies or concepts for social change by improving the living conditions of the marginalised. They can be active in the areas of environment, computer technology, better accessibility for people with disabilities, agriculture, education and many more.
Orange kantharis are symbolic of entrepreneurs who use business as a tool for sustainable social change. Their goal is not to make profit, but to use business to find ways to create structures that benefit those who are usually left out.
Red kantharis fight for a world free from discrimination, negative attitudes and harmful practices. Their goal is to provoke a mindset change in their communities through advocacy.
Purple kantharis symbolise artists who use their creativity as a tool towards making a difference. Musicians, painters, authors, filmmakers, journalists etc, who effect a positive mindset change through their work.
kanthari fosters participation from all over the world. Students and participants here belong to different socio-cultural milieu.
While some of them have university degrees, others have little or no formal education. Some are visually-impaired or physically-disabled, others have no disabilities at all. In the seven-month programme, the participants are given hands-on practical training in fields like marketing, banking, accounting, law and art by international experts who are called “catalysts”.
“What we look for in a potential participant is a sense of ownership, motivation, creativity, talent and passion to bring about social change,” says Kronenberg . “They have to be forces of good rather than victims of circumstances.”
While everything else is free and taken care of during the course, the selected participants have to fund their air tickets. “This is to see how committed they are to bringing about a change,” says Kronenberg . “If they can’t make sacrifices and source the money to fund their travel, how can they run a project?”
A Five-Act Enabling Journey
The kanthari curriculum is unique. It takes participants on a journey, in five acts, through a fictional country called Tansaleseas. The participants have to address a press conference about their project and answer a volley of questions from reporters; they then have to deal with “shady contracts” and appear in a “court of law” in connection with the cases in their project.
“The first Act presents participants all possible challenges in a society,” says Tenberken.
“They have to be really smart to survive the test and a series of activities that leads them to being able to start their own social ventures/initiatives.”
Act Two involves taking up a local project, for example, a “Trash to Cash” initiative in waste-management.
Act Three is “Wild World”, a four-week internship with an NGO, a social enterprise or in a campaign along with social advocates within India or Nepal. Participants can choose their own intern-host in their area of interest. The project can include a campaign for a social or environmental cause, a fundraiser for a not-for-profit organisation, a social initiative within a firm.
Act Four is preparation for graduation, and time to deliver their “Dream Speech”, a 10-minute talk and presentation on their project, which is “as good as TED Talks”.
In the first four Acts, the participants have many opportunities to experience, theoretically as well as practically, what it means to set up and run a social initiative. After completing Act Four, they are ready for Act Five, which involves starting up or continuing with their personal projects/initiatives in an area of their choice.
The Booklover From Japan
Yoshimi Horiuchi, 31, was a graduate of the first batch of kanthari (then IISE), and she is back on the campus to talk to the current batch. Yoshimi’s is a success story of chasing one’s dreams and overcoming hurdles.
A visually-impaired bookaholic from Japan, Yoshimi was studying in Bangkok when she realised — during her visits to numerous villages and disability-related organisations across Thailand — that people with disabilities had very limited access to information and reading materials due to the high cost of books and the lack of libraries, especially in rural areas. She came to kanthari with a project — Always Reading Caravan — which provides means to connect books to people, and people to books.
She says being at kanthari taught her not to be afraid to dream big. “I also had the opportunity to mingle and live with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds,” says Horiuchi.
Her organisation has already made an impact in rural Thailand with its mobile libraries. Similarly, Sristi, a 2012 kanthari graduate from Nepal, travels around the world to inspire the visually-impaired through dance, fashion and adventure. She is also back on the campus to motivate the new batch.
At the age of 16, Sristi lost her sight after consuming the medicine a doctor prescribed for an eye allergy. Soon, she recovered from the trauma of losing her sight, and was determined not to ‘discriminate’ against herself.
“I wanted to change (my life) from (a) shocking life to (a) rocking life,” says Sristi, 23.
A dancer, Sristi and a team from her organisation, Blind Rocks, now use interpersonal skills training, dance, fashion and adventure sports to enthuse the visually-impaired and society’s attitude towards them. Sristi is now planning to organise a fashion show for the visually-impaired.
Funded by like-minded corporates and individuals, kanthari functions under Braille Without Borders, a charitable trust which Kronenberg, Tenberken and Rajabhadresh, a Keralite, started.
Finding participants from India is a challenge that the German-Dutch couple faces on a regular basis.
“In India, the mindset of playing it safe has to change. People with special needs often find themselves in the ‘comfort zone’ of quotas and allowances. Parents don’t encourage their children to (step) out of the box and be the change,” says Tenberken.
Every other day, we read about people who want to change the way the world functions. Some use ideology, others pick up weapons.
Here, on this Laurie Baker-designed “green” campus on the banks of a picturesque lake on the rustic southern fringe of India, a group of adversity-survivors really undergo that transformation into fiery social change agents. Much like the tiny kanthari.
‘I Am Blind. So What?’ By Sabin Iqbal
You are yourself till you walk through the expansive wooden gate of kanthari. But after you have spent a few minutes with Sabriye Tenberker, you fall apart. You might want to kick at the brick walls in frustration—for just living your life.
Sabriye takes occasional swigs from her cold coffee (“the best in town,” she boasts) and talks passionately about her journey — from Bonn in Germany to Tibet to Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. The journey has been fascinating and exciting: it has seen Sabriye founding a school for the visually-impaired — with her partner Paul Kronenberg — in Tibet, develop a Braille system for the Tibetan language and set up a unique leadership school for social innovators on the outskirts of the city.
“Who says the visually-impaired are in darkness? Light and dark are for the sighted. We see what we see,” says Sabriye. “I am blind. So what?” she asks, and cracks a joke about putting on weight.
Three decades ago, her parents didn’t know how to break the news to little Sabriye that she was gradually losing her sight.
After her parents — a musician and a theatre director — had the courage to tell her what the doctor had told them, they took Sabriye to museums and famous landscapes across Europe — showing her as much light and colour as possible before she would turn blind.
Nine-year-old Sabriye observed everything, knowing that it was perhaps the last time she would be seeing them. She prepared herself to live the life of a visually-impaired person by switching off the lights in her room and training herself to live in darkness.
“I waited for darkness, but darkness never came,” says Sabriye. She became blind when she was 12, but, for Sabriye, blindness is not darkness. “When I became blind my world became more colourful.”
But the reaction of people around her made her angry. “It made me frustrated, lonely and angry.” People’s soft approach to her made her feel small. “What’s wrong? Am I wrong or they?” little Sabriye asked herself. She didn’t want others to dictate terms to her. “I didn’t want others to take decisions for me and tell me what to do,” she says.
The ‘constructive anger’ soon took away self-pity. “The blind live in a world made for sighted people,” says Sabriye. She needed to equip herself to live in the world made for the sighted. She went to a school for the visually-impaired near Frankfurt. “It was the best thing in my life.”
It made her come to terms with her condition with boldness and confidence. “I can do things that perhaps others cannot.” Sabriye’s confidence in her talents and skills grew. “I am blind but I am not stupid,” she says.
Sabriye majored in Central Asian Studies at the University of Bonn — the only blind student out of 30,000. When she decided to study the Tibetan language, many, including her professors, discouraged her, as there was no Tibetan Braille script.
Sabriye wanted to take her Braille system to Tibet so that the visually-impaired (over 35,000 people in a population of over 2.5 million) there could benefit.
But Sabriye was rejected by several development organisations that thought she would be a liability to them.
“I decided to start my own organisation,” she says about the genesis of Braille Without Borders (BWB), which she and Paul founded in 1998. She went to China alone, did an intense course in Chinese and travelled to Tibet, to the surprise of her distractors.
She met Paul as a backpacker in Tibet.
“When I shared my vision with him, he just quit his job and joined me…” Paul too was searching for “meaning” in life, and when he met Sabriye he knew “this is it”.
They have also become partners in life. Paul looks after operational management of both BWB and kanthari.
BWB is the region’s first rehabilitation and training centre for the visually-impaired, bringing literacy to thousands in Tibet.
Sabriye then decided to travel across Tibet, spreading awareness about her Braille system, and she did this in her inimitable way: with three companions, she rode on horseback from village to village through flooded rivers and mountain passes.
Sabriye, who has featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show as one of the Phenomenal Females (in the world), has won the highest German order and was TIME’s 2004 European and Asian Hero. She has also been knighted along with Paul by the Dutch queen. Author of three books, Sabriye was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and chosen as a Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum in 2005.
In 2009, the Chinese government recognised her as one of the 15 most influential foreign experts in the last 30 years. Sabriye believes that the change in the community’s perception of the visually-impaired should begin with them.
It was their search for a place to set up a training centre for social innovators in south India that brought Sabriye and Paul to Kerala. They spoke about their vision of the centre in a New York Times article that featured them. Navin Ramachandran, a consultant in the US, happened to read it and brought the couple to his native city of Thiruvananthapuram.
Her parents were prophetic when they named her Sabriye, which in Arabic means ‘resilient’. She is definitely living up to her name.
Fighting Female Genital Mutilation in Africa Monicah Kaguithia, Nairobi, Kenya
I was married at the age of 16, two weeks after my mother died, and I had not yet figured out how to live without her guidance and moral support. Here I was, cohabiting with a total stranger who only acknowledged my existence when I was performing my marital duties. Other than that, he ignored me completely and pretended that I did not exist.
The reason for this, as I was to learn later, was that he was embarrassed by the fact that I was not circumcised and his peers used to jeer at him for having married an ‘unclean’ woman. Everyone in my new family was ashamed of me and they treated me like an abomination. This took a toll on my health emotionally and physically to a point that I contemplated suicide.
But it had been agreed upon that it would be performed on the day I delivered my child. I longed for it and even wished I knew how it was done so that I could do it to myself to please my in-laws and get rid of the insults and jeers directed at me for being uncircumcised.
One day, I was invited to a circumcision – Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) — ceremony and as luck would have it, I witnessed how it was performed.
The labia minora and labia majora are cut off using a blunt knife and then cowdung is smeared on the raw flesh to stop the bleeding.
I could not believe this was what it took to become a woman and I swore to myself that no matter what happened I would rather die than go through with it. I was to be circumcised while giving birth but when my time came, I ran away.
I walked in pain for more than 13 km through dense forest and was scared that someone was following me.
By the time I reached my aunt’s place, I collapsed at the door and was taken to the hospital where I delivered a healthy baby boy. I stayed with my aunt for two months. Once you are married, the only way you could stay away from your marriage was if the entire dowry that was paid was returned. My father was not ready for that; I was taken back to go through the same mistreatment but I had learnt something. No one would take me by force and tie me down so that I could be circumcised.
I stayed on for 10 years and when I could take it no more I ran away and this time, I swore to myself that it would be for good. I could not go to any of my relatives because I would only be taken back to my husband. So I went and rented a small house in the slums. I started rebuilding my life and joined the Kenya Institute for the Blind to train in Braille and Adaptive Technology.
It was while I was here that I saw an advertisement for a scholarship in South India for social entrepreneurs. I applied and was accepted. When I applied I felt that I could start an organisation for the blind because I felt I had a debt to repay. For, it was a blind man who first believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. When I joined kanthari in 2010 it was all about repaying a debt to the blind society. But four months down the line, all that had changed and a fire that felt unquenchable, had started raging within my soul.
That fire was about fighting the torture of FGM in Africa. At kanthari, I learnt about all that I needed to become a successful change-maker who is not afraid of standing up for what is right. And, after an 11-month journey, I was well-equipped to come back home and start battling the menace of FGM.
I started the Entito Africa Initiative, an organisation to empower women, fight for the rights of the girl-child and FGM. We do this by creating awareness, advocacy, life skills training, workshops and campaigns on the dangers of FGM and counselling for girls and women as they move from dependent, often abusive relationships, towards independent self-sufficient lifestyles. We also assist in parent-child reconciliation after they escape FGM and conduct alternative rites of passage for girls to usher them into adulthood.
So far, we have saved 43 girls from FGM and this year we have 136 girls who will be going through the alternative rite of passage without circumcision.
(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 12 Issue 3, Dated 17 January 2015)