KOCHI: It is not very often you get to see a foreigner studiously reading a Malayalam textbook and that too at an age of 80. But, Kathleen Marie Huolohan, an Australian citizen, is one determined ‘ammumma’, as she loves to call herself. And hers is a rare feat since she is the first foreign national to be enrolled as a student for the continuing education programme launched by Kerala Literacy Mission.
She is studying at the Literacy Mission’s Continuing Education Centre in Pallipuram panchayat in Ernakulam.“I am keeping my fingers crossed,” said Kathleen, when asked if she will be able to complete the four-month course in a short span of three months, as she is on a tourist visa.
“Well, it will be a difficult task considering my age and the limitations imposed by it. But, I have a very good coach,” she said pointing to K B Rajeev, who works as a prerak (teacher) with the Literacy Mission.
Kathleen’s love affair with Kerala and Malayalam began three years ago when she came to the state along with a Buddhist group, which was on a tour of South India.
“My first trip to Kerala was in January 2016. A year after my husband passed away, I was invited by a group for a trip to South India. At that time, I couldn’t fathom where it will lead me. But they insisted and I came along,” said Kathleen, who retired as a trained nurse. The group after visiting various places in other South Indian states, came to Rajah Island in Thrissur.
“We came to the Island for ayurvedic treatment. But more than the treatment, I fell in love with the beauty of Kerala. It was an instant spiritual connection I had with the place,” she said. The magnetic pull the land had on Kathleen made her come back three more times after the first visit. “It was during one such visit that I got acquainted with Rajeev and expressed my desire to learn Malayalam,” she said.
According to Rajeev, who is also the owner of the homestay where Kathleen is staying, since she is on a tourist visa, she can only stay in the country for three months.
“Though she has a 12-month visa, she takes a break after three months, visits her only son in Singapore and comes back for another brief stay,” he said.
However, Rajeev is impressed with the speed with which Kathleen has picked up the alphabets. “Unlike the elders here, Kathleen is very diligent. She works hard and has mastered the letters. She can now read small words from the textbook,” he said.
Kathleen said, “Once Rajeev asked me to go to the nearby tea stall and order one for myself. I was to speak in Malayalam. So I went, all the while praying that I shouldn’t forget the words, and said, ‘Oru chaya, madhuram venda’. Phew, it was tough but exhilarating.”
“But she did good,” said Rajeev. “Nowadays she speaks to my mother in Malayalam, albeit in tiny sentences. So, I think she will be ready to write a test in three months time, which is the extent of her permitted stay,” he added.
Rajeev is planning to seek special permission from the Literacy Mission authorities to allow her to write the test earlier than prescribed. “If she clears the test, she will be given a certificate which certifies that she has completed the Continuing Education programme,” he said..