The shock of being forced to drink human blood and watch his teenage sister be raped and butchered to death during Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war caused a young Sahr Yillia to lose his eyesight. Such was the extent of the trauma. Yet now, despite his blindness, he heads the Child Rescue Mission, a Sierra Leonean not-for-profit organisation that rescues street children (many of whom were child soldiers) and reunites families separated by the cruelties of war. How he came to be a beacon for others is part and parcel of the story of Kanthari, a dream factory with a difference.
By Prue Goredema
The Kanthari International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs and Innovators is nestled in the lush green valleys of Kerala, southern India, in a corner of the country where the equatorial rains and ever-warm temperatures allow for the untamed growth of a national culinary treasure: the red hot kanthari chilli pepper. Its potency has inspired the name and ethos of the Kanthari Institute: an innovation programme whose mandate it is to turn visionaries from all over the world into effective leaders.
Kanthari is now inviting applicants for its fourth intake, a seven-month long course due to start in July 2012. Scholarships are available for those in need. There are no educational requirements; however, applicants should speak, read and write intermediate English, be at least twenty-two years old and be already dedicated to realising a specific dream of social change. Since 2008, founders Paul Kronenberg and Sabriye Tenberken have been inviting distinguished speakers and educators – dubbed ‘catalysts’ – to come in for a few weeks or months at a time to train and mentor dozens of ‘kantharis’ (participants) in whatever skills they need – from public speaking, interpersonal communication and cultural diversity, to core competencies such as management, fundraising, PR and accountancy skills. Since the importance of integrating ICTs into education and training exercises has been shown by the positive strides made in the field of ICT4D, facilitators with eLearning expertise can make invaluable contributions to the curriculum. Whatever it takes to fashion a social entrepreneur out of a dreamer, the Institute aims to rise to the challenge.
Of those kantharis who have already passed through the Institute’s hands, Kronenberg speaks with particular pride and admiration at the achievements of Sahr Yillia. The Child Rescue Mission he founded after graduating from Kanthari is centred in the Kailahun district of Sierra Leone, and on the 12.7 acres of land Yillia has secured, he is working on building a rescue village, as well as expanding his reach to also rescue sexually exploited minors, “We are pleased to have facilitated the training of the kantharis who have passed through our doors, but in reality, these are people who already had a burning desire to do something meaningful and necessary for social justice. They already knew that something small and fiery can make a huge difference. They already had the kanthari within them,” Kronenberg explains.
Kronenberg told the eLearning Africa News Service that applications are received and welcomed from all corners of the world, though they try to focus their efforts on people from developing countries who do not have easy access to training at home. “We take in people who have overcome adversity, and we give them the skills and contacts they need to create social change, either in their home countries when they have completed the course, or elsewhere in the world if they so choose.”
Kronenberg’s confidence in the power of the kantharis to become trail blazers comes from his experience as co-founder of Braille Without Borders in Tibet. The project was the brainchild of his partner Sabriye Tenberken who became blind at the age of twelve due to a retinal disease. Whilst taking Central Asian Studies at the University of Bonn in the mid-1990s, Tenberken found that the Tibetan language had not been transliterated into Braille, so she invented her own system in order to get through her university coursework. It then dawned on her that she could adapt her Braille script for the blind of Tibet, so at the age of 26 in 1997, she travelled to Tibet to take her alphabet to Tibet’s 30 000 blind citizens. She then established Braille Without Borders with Kronenberg, and despite an initial struggle to secure donor support, the school has thrived.
“Today Braille Without Borders is being run by first generation graduates,” says Kronenberg. “We do visit from time to time, but what is noteworthy is that once people are equipped with skills rather than being shunned and isolated, they are able to fend for themselves.” The school delivers more than formal schooling. They run a vocational training farm where blind students are being trained in several vocations and skills. The income generated by sales of products such as cheese, bread and vegetables that are produced in the farm partly covers the costs. The additional funding still depends on donations.
A similar approach has been adopted at Kanthari in empowering people like Sahr Yillia to realise their own sustainable social projects. “Just as one hot kanthari chilli is all that is required to flavour a pot of stew,” says Kronenberg, “one motivated person can make a big difference to the world.” People wishing to get involved as a budding kanthari, catalyst, mentor or benefactor can learn more at the Kanthari Institute’s website.