Sabriye Tenberken
She was just 26 years old and blind when she rode into Tibet (on horseback, no less!) to found a school where blind children could learn to read braille, speak three languages, take care of themselves, teach each other, and put a joyous new spin on the idea of the blind leading the blind.

Rosemary Mahoney listens and learns from—and tries to keep pace with—the spectacular Sabriye Tenberken.
Sabriye Tenberken walks fast and with authority. As we stride up a narrow street, a little girl sitting on a stoop spots Tenberken through the crowd, springs to her feet, and crows at the top of her lungs, "Xia ze lai le!" A simple Chinese sentence, it means, "Gangway! Here comes an idiot!"

In the seven years Sabriye's spent living in Tibet—and indeed in the 27 in her native Germany before that—she's been the object of this phrase, and worse, countless times. Sabriye Tenberken (pronounced Sah-bree-yah Ten-BURR-ken) single-handedly has brought literacy to the blind people of Tibet. In founding the Lhasa-based Braille Without Borders*, the region's first rehabilitation and training center for the blind, she has inspired nothing short of a revolution in their status, their thinking, their future. She and her partner in life, Paul Kronenberg, who handles much of the practical work of the school, have been knighted by the Dutch queen. She has also won numerous honors and awards for her work. She is hardly an idiot. "You cannot insult me with blindness," she says, "because I'm proud to be blind." These days epithets leave her unfazed; they didn't always.

Born with a degenerative retinal disease, Tenberken was blind by 12. In her early years, she was able to make out faces, colors, landscapes, but her vision was highly impaired, and as a result her schoolteachers approached her with what she felt was a patronizing deference that set her apart. Her classmates spurned and taunted her. Determined to fit in, Tenberken denied her blindness to herself and worked overtime to hide it.

Phenomenal Woman: Sabriye Tenberken continues…

Sitting in the bright offices of Braille Without Borders, now in its seventh year, Tenberken leans forward and says, "Not accepting that I was blind was miserable. … I was constantly compensating and pretending." She pauses to think and with visible emotion adds, "Not until I accepted my blindness did I begin to live."

Tenberken enrolled at a boarding school for the blind, where among academic subjects the students were taught horseback riding, swimming, white-water rafting, braille, and, above all, self-reliance. "Suddenly, I was one among many," she tells me. "I had friends. I was equal and happy. … I thought, 'Okay. I may be ugly and blind, but I have a brain. I can do things.'"

Tenberken majored in central Asian studies at the University of Bonn, the only blind student out of 30,000. There, several professors tried to dissuade her from studying the difficult Tibetan language. There were no Tibetan texts available in braille. Using the system of rhythmic spelling Tibetans employ to memorize their complex language, Tenberken created her own method of translating the Tibetan language into braille. She compiled a Tibetan-German/German-Tibetan dictionary, and eventually, Tenberken helped to devise a software system that enabled her to transpose entire Tibetan texts into formally printed braille, a feat no one before had ever accomplished.

"I developed this system for my own use," she says, "but when I realized that blind people in Tibet could also benefit from it, I got the idea to bring it here and start a school." Rejected by several development organizations, who saw her blindness as too great a liability, Tenberken resolved to make the project happen on her own. In 1997, at the age of 26, much to the dismay of everyone but her immediate family, she traveled alone to China, took an intensive course in Chinese, then proceeded to Tibet, where she learned that more than 30,000 of Tibet's 2.6 million people are blind—about twice the global rate. While poor diet and unhygienic conditions are factors, Tibet's main cause of blindness is its high elevation; at this altitude the intensity of the sun's ultraviolet rays causes damage to the unprotected eye.

Phenomenal Woman: Sabriye Tenberken continues…
Tenberken discovered a deep prejudice against the blind in Tibet, where blindness is considered punishment for misdeeds perpetrated in a past life. For centuries Tibet's blind have been shunned, vilified, and generally treated as subhuman. When Tenberken first arrived, she found not a single institution or organization geared to provide assistance for the region's blind—clearly a result of this deep-seated fear and opprobrium.

Tenberken decided to travel through remote areas of the countryside, visiting rural villages, spreading the word about her braille system, assessing the situation of blind children there. When she concluded that the best way to do this was on horseback, there were more howls of protest from the skeptics. Nevertheless she set off with three supportive companions, two of whom were Tibetan, riding from village to village, across high mountain passes, through flooded rivers. What she found appalled her: isolated, disrespected, sometimes beaten, abandoned, or turned out in the streets to beg, almost all were illiterate and uneducated. When villagers saw Tenberken walking, riding a horse, they refused at first to believe she was blind. Tenberken persuaded them that though blind, their children, too, could ride horses, read, and write. One astounded father told her, "The prospect of your school is like a dream for us."

At the moment, there are 37 students—ranging in age from 3 to 19—in residence at the school, as well as six trained teachers and five staff members, but new students arrive regularly. I ask Tenberken how the school survives without charging tuition or boarding fees. At the mention of finances, she smiles ruefully. "It costs about $2,000 per month to run the project. It's not a lot, but by the end of this year we may find we're out of funds."

Tenberken, who used $20,000 of her own money to start the school, spends a great deal of time applying for grants, making speeches, and traveling to raise funds from private individuals. Though the project has gained international renown and the school receives close to 5,000 curious visitors a year, donations are often not forthcoming. Tenberken drops her cane on the ground by her feet, tucks her hands between her knees, lifts her face to the sky. "The main reason people don't give us money is that we don't raise funds with pity." She believes that presenting her students as pitiable simply furthers the prejudice against them. "We've learned that you'll get funding if people feel sorry for you, but the perception of your capabilities will never change."

Phenomenal Woman: Sabriye Tenberken continues…
Tenberken says that when students first arrive at the school, they often object to being asked to learn and participate in school tasks. "They say, ‘I'm blind! I can't do that.' But when they see the other kids working hard, they change their views." The students are helping each other, not passively waiting to be told what to do.

Tenberken smiles. "That's always been my hope. I've never liked the word help in the sense of the Samaritan. I never wanted just to come here as a Western person and help the blind by telling them what to do. I learn from them. We combine our experiences. I am one of them, and it's their project as much as it is mine." Tenberken aims to teach the blind how to integrate themselves into their communities, how to educate the sighted in what it means to be blind. "I believe that changes in the community's perception of the blind should radiate from the blind themselves. When our children return to their villages, they know many new things their own families have never learned. In many villages, the families don't speak Chinese or English; the returning blind child is able to translate for them. He returns with a new value; for the first time he's seen as useful."

I ask Tenberken if students ever object to returning to their villages. "That happens," she says. "And sighted people always say to me, ‘You see? You alienated them from their world.' Believe me, I've thought about this a lot. But this isn't alienation. It's simply life." Upon completing their preliminary education at BWB, students can opt to return to their villages, attend a normal school with sighted children, or train for a vocation such as medical massage, animal husbandry, cheesemaking, or farming. Tenberken's ultimate goal is to establish an international training center in Kerala, India, where blind people from all over the developing world can learn the management skills necessary to establish their own schools and training centers for the blind.

Though highly self-confident, Tenberken admits that the task of setting BWB on its feet was the hardest thing she's ever done. The bureaucratic resistance from government authorities, the difficulty of raising funds, the doubts of people who objected to her ideas, were nearly overwhelming. "In the beginning it was horrible. But the obstacles made us stronger. People tried to put limits on me, but limits always show opportunities. I persisted because I believed it was possible."


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