Sea change

Sea change

Imperfection is the mother of invention," Sabriye Tenberken tells me. We are at kanthari, the institute she, a German national, founded with her partner Paul Kronenberg in 2005. Here, a seven-month leadership programme helps participants from different parts of the world turn around personal adversities to trigger the larger social change. Sabriye, 47, is blind.

She's critical of the politically correct, mollified terminologies we've come to attach to physical impediments; so, 'visually challenged' is likely to have her squirm in protest. "Aren't we all challenged in some way? You are, because you have to see. I'm not, because I don't have to," she says.

It's a powerful point of reversal. Convention, evidently, is not quite the thing at kanthari where change from within is no mere punchline but an essential that shapes the change-maker's vision.

Sabriye says the institute, named after an extra-spicy chilli variant, spurs people to challenge the status quo. Here, the kantharis - as the graduates are called - are groomed as leaders who breach barriers of victimhood to emerge as visionaries.

Shared space

When we meet on the institute's 2.8-acre campus in Vellayani, in Thiruvananthapuram, the participants and programme catalysts have just completed kanthari TALKS, the annual event which marks the culmination of the residential programme. It's a platform where the participants share their stories with an audience; they relive their struggles, talk about inspirations and state how they intend to draw from personal experiences to empower communities they engage with.

In a gazebo on the backyard of the kanthari campus that has Laurie Baker-inspired buildings facing the serene Vellayani Lake, Sabriye and Paul tell me some of these stories lived by the kantharis over the years. Stories of strife and abuse, of discrimination and despair, some bleak, some devastating, but all inspiring.

They have a fairly exceptional story of their own to tell. Sabriye was 12 when she became fully blind, about three years after she was diagnosed with a degenerative retinal disease. What followed was a phase of denial, marked by fears of social isolation and low self-esteem. She was bullied and discriminated against - "I became a total introvert" - but her parents, she points out, were critical thinkers who wanted her to confront her impairment with a sense of pragmatism.

The 'black is beautiful' slogan, raised by American political activist and writer Angela Davis, also led Sabriye to look inward, afresh. She could see that blind was beautiful too. "I became a much better communicator; my power to imagine was greater, and the world was more colourful. I could take responsibility for my life; I also became a problem-solver, which I feel is one of the most exciting parts of being blind," she says.

Sabriye developed a Tibetan Braille script for her Central Asian Sciences course at Bonn University - "After my first visit to Tibet, I decided to leave university behind to start my project," she says. She met Paul, an engineer from the Netherlands, in Tibet. It was 1997; a year later, they were running a learning centre for blind children in Lhasa. The centre in Tibet formed the core of a larger project they set in motion four years later - Braille Without Borders, an organisation that designs programmes to facilitate literacy and education for the blind, to help them integrate with the society of the sighted.

For Sabriye and Paul, India is home now, warm and welcoming. Some of its people, with their compulsions to conform, also form an interesting counter-point to the kanthari philosophy of dissent as change. "We don't offer solutions. What do we know about these communities, these places we've never been to? We are only supplementing the participants' intentions to create change by helping them with tools, with research to identify and understand their target groups," says Paul.

Sabriye and Paul call themselves dreamers and the change they pitch for is real, tangible. "This is not a place for healing. We can only select participants who have overcome their trauma and/or adversity. Yet, if they still carry constructive anger within themselves, it helps," says Sabriye.

After the fall

At kanthari (www.kanthari.org), participants are primed through an intensive, five-phased programme that dissects the idea of social change also through its practical rigours. The goal is ethical social change, achieved through leaders from margins of the society; leaders who've had their 'pinching points', setbacks they've managed to overcome.

"I had mine as a teenager. It was this medical condition that used to leave my skin peeled off my back," says Paul. He struggled with the condition between ages 11 and 17. "I used to wake up to see my skin ripped and stuck on the sheet I slept on. At that age, all this was devastating. My confidence levels were really low," he says.

The kanthari participants are selected after a multiple-level interview process. The pinching point becomes crucial here; the candidate could be anyone who has survived a significant adversity but also wants to address it on a larger scale or even the concerned "outsider" who wants to get involved, and contribute. The selected participants receive a donor-funded scholarship that covers their training fee, accommodation and food. On completion of the programme, kanthari provides the participants a stipend and mentorship support for five months, in the run-up to their proposed social projects.

Rahel Zegeye Zewudu, an Ethiopian national working in Lebanon, is a kanthari from the 2017 batch. She wants to improve the working conditions of migrant workers who hardly have any rights in Lebanon and are often abused. Lingala Naresh, her batchmate and son of a Telangana farmer, is concerned about the many farmer suicides, and is designing a digital literacy project for farmers.

Teh Francis, a Cameroon-based kanthari from the 2016 batch, runs an all-women table banking project that helps rural women find hassle-free loans and, in turn, financial independence. Parthasarathy Kandasamy, also from the 2016 batch, runs Aravans, an organisation that works on rights of the LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning and Intersex) community, in Virudhunagar in Tamil Nadu.

The conversation veers to India and its idea of reservation for the disabled. Sabriye feels it makes sense to have reservation as an interim arrangement but maintains that the purpose gets lost in the organised, at times confrontational, methods to secure it. "Why do the blind need seats behind the bus driver? The idea should be to fight for equal opportunities, to have society see their abilities," she says.

Across 41 countries, the kantharis run over 125 social projects now, all anchored on their stories - of abuse, disability, war, environmental concerns and diverse forms of discrimination. As I walk out, I hear participants prepping for a musical performance as part of the certification ceremony. It's Bob Dylan, it's 'Blowin' in the Wind'.

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