I was at an unusual convocation at what was till recently called the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs on the Vellayani Lake in the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram. As the graduates walked up to me to receive a sash and a diploma each, it became evident that each one was physically challenged in one way or another. Each one was smiling and each one had a plan for the future. One wanted to open an Internet cafe in Palestine, another wanted to open a school in Kenya, yet another one wanted to set up a home for AIDS patients in Zimbabwe. They were brimming with hope and confidence and determined to make a difference to the world.
Sensing the mood of the graduates, the promoters of the institution on behalf of the ‘Braille Without Borders Foundation’, Sabriye and Paul announced a change of name — ‘Kanthari’. The audience was surprised and amused that an institution is named after the smallest and the most potent chilli in the world. Sabriye and her team had indeed studied the kanthari well. She said it grew wild in the backyards of homes with no tender care, it produced colourful and potent chillies that would make a big difference to the palate, when eaten cooked or uncooked and no one will forget the kanthari once it has been tasted. These graduates, she said, were like kanthari in every respect. Sabriye, blind herself and determined, is indeed a kanthari, which has already made a difference to many people in different parts of the world.
Sabriye and Paul, two Germans, who spent 12 years in Tibet, helping the blind there, won the approbation not only of Tibetans, but also the Beijing authorities, who awarded them an honour given earlier to Marx and Engels. They found their way to Kerala in 2009 to find a beautiful spot. They had immense success with volunteers, donors and bewildered well-wishers who helped them set up a home for about 40 participants from around the globe. Social projects that improve the quality of blind, visually impaired people and marginalised target groups were devised and invitations went around the world. It made no segregation between the able and disabled, educated and uneducated, young and old. Those who were admitted in the last three years were people who had overcome significant life challenges ranging from vision impairment, disability, poverty, war, discrimination and exploitation. Having experienced or witnessed atrocities of various kinds they had a passion to make the world a better place and the strength to be forces of good rather than victims of circumstance.
The graduates will return to their homes with the necessary skills to succeed as social entrepreneurs. The course has been curtailed from 11 months to seven to have two groups per year. Some are self-supporting, while others have scholarships.
The graduation this year celebrated ‘One World, Many Flavours’ and I shared my experience of living in different cultures. The flavours differed so much in different countries in food, drinks and manners, but human beings were the same, I said.
The participants appeared to have lost all barriers during their stay at the Kanthari. They seemed fully equipped to face the challenges of their life ahead with no inhibition about their disabilities. They had turned themselves into kantharis, with enough spice in them to change the world.