She has clearly defined her path. Be it developing a script in Braille, writing books, setting up international centres or horse riding, Sabriye Tenberken leads the way.
There were three turning points in the early life of Sabriye Tenberken, a native of Cologne in Germany, who lost her sight when she was just 12 owing to a congenital retinal degenerative disease. The first was when she found out about author Jacques Lusseyran who, despite being visually challenged, worked in the Resistance during the Third Reich. She realised that, whether you are sightless or not, "it is very important to put all your energy in doing something for the underprivileged". Then, a totally new world opened for her when she learnt Braille: "I suddenly experienced the joy of reading." And when she learnt to walk with the help of a white cane, Tenberken found that this little tool had opened her world still further and made her independent.
She was now well equipped, in body, mind and spirit, to embark on a journey marked by many achievements. Tenberken was backed by her belief that blindness is not a handicap if blind people have access to education and methods to compensate their lack of sight; if they empower themselves and accept their blindness as something that belongs to them and if society accepts blind people and gives them a chance to participate.
She studied Central Asian Sciences at Bonn University, with Tibetology as one of the main subjects. As she was the first blind student to opt for this course, she soon found out that there was no Braille alphabet for the 30-syllable characters of the Tibetan language. Unfazed, Tenberken went on to develop a simple, easy-to-comprehend, Braille script for Tibetan in just two weeks.
The determined young lady then decided to promote her Braille script in Tibet. She travelled alone to Lhasa in the summer of 1997. There she met her future partner, the Dutch Paul Kronenberg. Together, they opened a boarding school at Lhasa, with help from the local people. The initial funds for the school were raised from profits got from her autobiography, My Path Leads to Tibet. The book has been published in 13 languages. Tenberken and Kronenberg have also started a vocational training centre for blind adults on a farm about 300 kilometres from Lhasa.
In 2002, Tenberken and Kronenberg founded Braille Without Borders (BWB), an organisation that does not believe in setting any borders for the visually impaired. They are now busy establishing the BWB International School for Development and Project near Trivandrum in Kerala, India. Explains Tenberken: "At the moment we are still in the construction phase. We have chosen an environmentally friendly style for the buildings with rainwater harvesting, biogas and wastewater management. Also, we are planning on solar systems and, maybe, even a windmill for generating electricity." The intent is to create a centre that will prove to be cost efficient, environment friendly and have a great atmosphere as well. The partners are also preparing the curricula for the centre. They have formed a team with major professors from universities in Kerala who are working on a new programme.
The enterprising lady has recently published Das Siebte Jahr-Von Tibet nach Indien (The Seventh Year-From Tibet to India), a description of her view on Tibet today: "The book is also about six students of ours who, together with Paul and I, tried to reach the summit of Lhakpa Ri, a 7,100 metre-high peak, under the leadership of Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man who has climbed Mount Everest. The trip ended in a snowstorm and in a very interesting conflict in which different cultures clashed with their ideas about climbing and the necessity of reaching the top. During this expedition we were followed by a documentary film team who made a terrific film called Blindsight."
Though she confesses to never planning much ahead, she says they want to hand over the project in Tibet to some of their very capable staff members and former students and also make the school in Kerala as wonderful as possible: "And after that I don't know yet, but I am sure I will never be bored, especially with Paul on my side."