A Journey from Being Marginalised to Becoming Fierce Leaders

In the beautiful land of Kerala, a silent initiative is transforming the abused and ignored community from across the globe into fierce changemakers. A couple Sabriye and Paul started kanthari, an institute for social change in 2009. In just 10 years, they have produced leaders who have impacted over 50,000 lives. Read gutwrenching and heartwarming journeys of these leaders, how they left their dark pasts behind and transformed their lives in seven months.

“Hi, I am Gikufu,” he said as I met him for the first time at a breakfast table in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. I looked at his dreamy eyes and his humble posture. He stood there for some time looking a bit lost and worried. I asked him to join me for the breakfast. “What does Gikufu mean?” I asked. “The one you see and love instantly,” he said with a smile. His smile had a hidden story and I wanted to know that.

Gikufu, the 26-year-old man from Kenya grew up in the slums in Nairobi. Being denied access to education and even basic necessities of life, Gikufu spent his life in extreme poverty. I sat with Gikufu under a tree after dinner that day and he began sharing his life’s story. “One can’t imagine the life I have faced. Now, things as simple as having food feels like a privilege to me,” he said.

Gikufu Francis | Photo: Paul Kronenberg

Gikufu’s hardships started when he was sexually abused at an age of five by a neighbour. The abuse continued for several years and deeply impacted him. Ever since he was born, his family had discriminated against him. He was not allowed to attend school while all his other siblings were given this opportunity. He was forced to earn a living, in spite of being the youngest one in the family. So, every day, an eight-year-old Gikufu would be out in the streets of Nairobi, selling groundnuts and earning a small amount of money to give to his family. If he failed in doing so, he was beaten up and starved.

The only person who cared for him was his mentally challenged elder sister. “She meant the world to me. She was the only one who loved me,” Gikufu recalled her fondly. But soon, his world came crashing down when one evening, his sister committed suicide.

“From a distance, I saw a police car, parked close to our shed and a yellow tape crackling in the wind –- the same tape they use to seal a crime scene. Somehow I made it to the broken door of our hut. Right before me, I saw my sister. She was hanging on a rope,” Gikufu broke down into tears as he shared this.

After this incident, Gikufu was never the same. He tried to commit suicide thrice. He got addicted to drugs and was soon thrown out of the house.

Commuication session at kanthari | Photo: Paul Kronenberg

Gikufu took this as an opportunity to change his life. He enrolled himself in a college and did a course in journalism. He soon got rid of his drug addiction and decided to ensure that he will not let any other slum kid suffer as he did.

Gikufu’s dream is to provide mentorship to children and youth of the Mukuru slums, Kenya. He applied to kanthari,  a leadership training institute for social change makers and came to Kerala, India.

kanthari gave wings to Gikufu’s dreams. His blurred idea became a clear picture. He designed a master plan of how he would go back to Kenya and kick-start his initiative. “I want to empower children and youth from the slum so that they don’t end up living a life of misery. I want to provide media and film training as a tool to empower them,” said Gikufu.

Through his initiative, children and youth from the slum will be able to tell their stories in creative ways and develop a positive mindset towards life. Gikufu is one of the hundreds of visionaries that kanthari has hosted in 10 years of its operation.

Origins of kanthari

The organisation offers a scholarship based leadership program for visionaries who have overcome adversity and are keen to drive ethical social change anywhere in the world.

Started by a German national Sabriye Tenberken and her Dutch partner Paul Kronenberg in 2009, kanthari has been nurturing a large number of future leaders through a holistic curriculum. Sabriye, 48, is blind and has a long list of achievements in the field of social change.

Paul (left) and Sabriye

“My parents knew a long time before me that I would become blind. I got to know about it when I was nine years old. I was once ice skating and fell into a hole. I simply didn’t see it. Over the next three to four years I became completely blind. Those years were hell for me. Not because of blindness but because of being discriminated and sidelined. My turning point was the analogy to the black power movement in the USA, and the slogan “black is beautiful”. I thought ‘if black is beautiful and blind is black, how about finding the beauty of blindness?'” Sabriye said. 

That was the first sign of her positive attitude towards life. Later, she went to Tibet at an age of 26 and revolutionised the education system for blind children there. This is when she met Paul and together went on to do something, which was never done before.

The couple founded Braille Without Borders, an initiative to empower and educate blind children in Tibet in 1998. Sabriye created the first Tibetan Braille system.  The students at this interesting school, who faced discrimination and did not know how to even walk properly, learned how to become self-reliant. They learned not just Braille but also started speaking three languages; Tibetan, Chinese and English.

When the agreement to work with the Tibetan government was not renewed, the couple could not continue their work in Tibet. 

Paul and Sabriye knew that one day they had to leave the country and they wanted to empower their former blind students to take over all their projects in Tibet. In the meantime, they started to search for a different location for their next dream, an international training centre for social visionaries who would be trained to start the change from within. Thus they came to India to set up a one of its kind institute on the beautiful banks of Vellayani Lake in Kerala.

“We saw 48 different sites before we finalised this one. We wanted our site to resonate with our vision. This place has nature, beautiful surroundings, and a lovely lake. We decided to build our dream campus here,” said Paul.

This is when a new chapter of their life started, which gave many powerful social leaders to the world.

How does it work?

Kanthari Participants, 2018 | Photo: Paul Kronenberg

The kanthari process starts with finding and accepting the right participants every year. Once accepted, these participants undergo an extensive training.

With help of several hands-on workshops, field and exposure visits, networking and interaction with other social entrepreneurs and change makers, these visionaries are transformed into inspiring leaders in seven months.

Named after a spicy chili with numerous medicinal values, kanthari is a place to create a new type of leader –- a leader from the margins of society.

“The criteria to be part of kanthari is to have a passion and a fire within to make a difference. We choose people who have faced some personal challenges in life because those challenges drive them and give their project a strong sense of purpose,” said Paul.

VOICE Projection Workshop | Photo: Paul Kronenberg

From environment issues to women empowerment, from alternate education to mental health, from good governance to tribal conflict, from disability to peace building, kanthari participants have projects in many different areas.

The participants are of the age 22 and above. “The decision to get older participants was made because they are the ones who really believe in their idea. They are not doing it to prove something, they are doing it because they are serious about it, they have seen some life and have a clear vision,” said Sabriye.

kanthari does not provide solutions. Rather, they facilitate the participants with tools that help them come up with own creative solutions.

 “At kanthari our focus is not on scale but on quality, not on 1000 conventional social project ideas, but on the few that create relevant mindset changes and direct impact,” said Sabriye. 

At the end of the seven-month long course, each participant gets to give their ‘Dream Speech’ at the grand ‘kanthari TALKS’. The annual event hosts a large crowd with influencers and change-makers from across the world as the audience. The participants get to connect with them and take their dream projects a step further.

Odunayo, another participant at kanthari has come all the way from Nigeria to polish her project, Bramble.  It is an organisation that provides free and quality education to children from socially and economically marginalised communities in Nigeria.

Odunayo Aliu | Photo: Paul Kronenberg

Odunayo was separated from her mother when she was six years old. She spent the next few years residing at different relatives’ homes who constantly mistreated her. Responsibilities to earn a living came way too early on her shoulders.

At an age of 10, she was babysitting a fully grown healthy adult. She faced extreme verbal and physical abuse at a tender age. “The lady I was babysitting often refused to use the toilet. So, I had to dispose of her poo and pee. For her anger therapy, I became a sedative. Hot water and iron, chairs and cooking pot with extreme verbal abuse, were used as weapons on my tiny body,” Odunayo shared. As she grew older, she faced sexual abuse, which became a regular part of her life.

“There was no safe haven; at age six it was the stepfather, at ten it was a neighbour, and at thirteen it was three other relatives. Like shadows, they lurk in dark places,” she said.

It was this extreme hardship that inspired Odunayo to stand up for other children in Nigeria. Odunayo plans to start an alternative learning platform named Bramble that promotes creative and critical thinking in rural children. Through an interesting curriculum, she wants to empower these vulnerable kids to become agents of change in their own circles.

The positive impact

kanthari’s impact can be seen not just through the transformation of its participants but also by the plethora of incredible work they have done after passing out from the institute.

Sadhana Nayak from Odisha, India, a 2017 graduate is working in the field of gender violence.

“Forty-two percent of tribal women are affected by violence and I am one of them. One day my friend invited me to stay with her. That night, I was abused by her brother. Abuse is not considered a crime in our culture and the victim is forced to marry the abuser,” she said.

SADHAN workshop. | Photo: Sadhana Nayak

Sadhana was forced to marry the man who abused her. She was further exposed to extreme violence by him after marriage. She silently tolerated the abuse for years. One day, she decided to break free. She gathered the courage and started her fight against violence faced by women in Odisha.

She started SADHAN, an organisation that provides professional support and assistance to violence-affected women. By encouraging the women to speak against the violence, imparting entrepreneurial skills among them, establishing a strong network and advocating policies at the government level, SADHAN has managed to touch many lives.

Another alumnus, Karthikeyan Ganesan is working to provide equal opportunity and education for people with disability in Pondicherry. He started an initiative, Sristi Village in 2013 and has been impacting hundreds of lives.

Karthik, founder of Sristi Village. | Photo: Joseph Pisani

“kanthari helped me to realise the importance of collaborating with your beneficiaries and creatively solving problems. When I entered kanthari my project was scattered. With help of many sessions, I was able to transform my project,” said Lawrence Afere from Nigeria.

So far kanthari has trained 183 social change makers from 41 countries. Over 130 initiatives impacting over 50,000 lives have been formed with Paul and Sabriye’s intervention and guidance.

The hidden challenge

Sabriye with some of the kanthari 2018 participants | Photo: Paul Kronenberg

With each passing year, kanthari has been going strong. The values that kanthari impart in its participants can be seen through their strong alumni network that is already creating large scale societal change.

However, there are of course also some challenges. kanthari receives many applications from all around the world but not so many from within India. The kanthari team expects more participants from India.

Another challenge was/is to handle the vast mix of people and their requirements. Things like food, communication, and intercultural misunderstandings. “There was a lot of trial and error before we could finally come up with suitable policies and a code of conduct,” said Paul.

In addition, the emotional ups and downs of the participants who come from difficult circumstances are quite challenging too. In one of my long meetings with Paul, I saw him having tears in his eyes as he recalled the hard life of the participants.

And last but not least, like many organisations, fundraising is not all that easy.

What You can do?

Sadhna during her kanthari TALK | Photo: Paul Kronenberg

kanthari is now inviting applications for their 2019 batch. If you think you have an idea to create an impact or if you know of someone else who could benefit from this course, then you can apply via www.kanthari.org/.

As this year is the tenth anniversary, for the first time, the much awaited kanthari TALKS will be held on 24th and 25th November, 2018 in Bangalore. The event will have all 23 participants from 13 different countries sharing their heartwarming stories and their creative solutions. You can help by spreading the word and attending the event. Click here to attend the event.

You can also donate to them and help them mentor more strong leaders. Reach out to them at- and check out their website for more details.

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Shreya Pareek

1 comment

  • Creating change makers and bringing the marginalized to the mainstream is more than a commitment to Paul and Sabriye. It’s a passion.

    Your November event could be an eye opener to the Bengalureans, Paul.