By Sabriye Tenberken
I was born in a family of outsiders.
When I was two years old, my parents moved into a village that was located approximately 12 KM south of Bonn, which was the official capital of West-Germany back then. A lovely little place, with a forest, a creek, an old church and it had, like many other German villages, its own castle with a baron and a baroness.
In short, it was a perfect place for farmers, cows, dachshunds, horses and for governmental clerks and university professors who wanted nothing more than a peaceful and over-viewable lifestyle.
Then, my parents moved into this little paradise and they were most likely the first to disturb this harmony. In the villager’s eyes, nothing about my family seemed to be as it was ‘supposed to be’.
The fact that both of them did not to go to church, that their front yard was not a clean-cut lawn but rather looked like a jungle in which several creatures found their new home, that the car they used was old and full of dents and scratches and that they started a theater school, “obviously to politicize the village youth!”; All this nurtured the “gossip kitchen”. But my parents lived their life, not being bothered, enjoying their outsider position within this community.
I grew up in the 70s. My parents were influenced by the ’68 student revolution that took place in West Germany. Next to alternative education and environmental protection, women empowerment was one of the goals my parents and their friends were fighting for. To me, my mother was one of my role models. When she was young, she didn’t “give a damn” about conventional habits. She spoke up whenever she felt the need to be heard, she made her own decisions and faced challenging consequences with curiosity and an overall positive mindset. At the age of 21, she escaped marriage preparations deciding against life with a high ranked army officer. Thus, she said “NO” to a lifestyle of security and protection and an overall predictable future.
Instead, for some years, she lived in Turkey where she studied Islamic Art in Ankara. For her studies, she had to travel through East Anatolia to measure mosques. To be able to do so, she had to dress as a man.
From my mother, I learned how to say “no” and how not to give in; and my father, a musician who was passionate about philosophical and political debates as well as my older brother who became an artist at early age, had taught me that life becomes much more worth living if you are not trying to please and be everybody’s darling. In my opinion, this is the type of empowerment, we need to consider for our children, especially for girls today.
Looking back, I understand that I could only develop my attitude towards “blindness being an advantage” because in early age, I already experienced how fortunate we were, not to belong and not to be forced to be conform.
The term “marginalization” usually holds a negative connotation. But I experienced marginalization as a “wonderbag”.
And yes, there are times during childhood in which one longs to be “normal”, “invisible”, “one of many”. But at the age of nine, I was confronted with the fact that nothing will ever be normal in my life. Through several incidences, I realized that I would, slowly but steadily, lose my sight and become completely blind.
In such moments of truth, you have two choices: You can drown in self-pity, hide, resign, and whine. Or you can accept the new reality, and search for alternative opportunities.
And once I gained back my confidence and I realized that a life at the margins could be an adventure, I grabbed the first opportunity and enrolled in a very special high-school, a school for empowering “outsiders”.
Well, officially, it was a school where visually impaired teenagers were prepared for higher education, but the pedagogical aim of the school was not to raise us ‘to fit in’ or to be ‘mainstream’. We had teachers who would say, “You are blind, therefore you will never be ‘normal’, you are and will be an ‘alien’! Just face it, embrace it and use this as your personal platform to jump high.”
Many of our teachers were critical thinkers, creative doers and overall fearless while empowering us to test our own limits. Next to excellent interdisciplinary courses in languages, art, philosophy and science, they were focused on adventure sports such as riding horseback, trampoline, downhill skiing, windsurfing and white-water Kayaking.
Shying away from challenges was a no-go. If one of us was falling back into the pity mode, trying to use blindness as an excuse to not participate in certain activities, our teachers would just smile ironically and say, “Oh poor you.” But then, they laughed and said: “If you are done whining, come back and give it a try!”
Typical discussions between us and them were: “You don’t know how difficult it is, not to be able to see.” Their answers, short and without any sentiment: “Yes, you are right; we are not blind and don’t know how much hardship you carry. What we can do is to give you all the tools and techniques, but you are the one who needs to open the door to the world by yourself!”
The time in the school, where we were encouraged and empowered to do anything we wanted to try, formed a sharp contrast to being a blind person in the German society at large. At least back then, the majority of Germans were overly concerned about our safety and thus reduced us to a limited range of professions.
I, however, wanted to lead an adventurous life. So I decided to study Central Asian sciences with Tibetology as the main subject. To take down notes, I created the Tibetan Braille Script. I got to know that such a Braille script didn’t exist and that gave me the idea to start the first school for the blind on the Tibetan plateau.
In 1997, I traveled to Lhasa by myself and there I met my current life partner, the Dutch engineer Paul Kronenberg.
Only one year later, we returned to Tibet together to start our dream project.
The preparatory school that we started was a mix of the theatre school of my parents and the highschool I went to.
With our first batch of students, I witnessed similar discussions like the ones in my highschool: Gyendsen, a highly intelligent but also traumatized child, who had faced discrimination in his village once he became blind, expressed his wish to never be confronted with sighted peers again.
After two years in our preparatory school, several students were ready to integrate themselves into a regular school. We had chosen him and three blind girls to enroll in a boarding school with sighted children in order to demonstrate that the blind are capable and shouldn’t be left behind.
This time Bungzo, an 11-year-old, rather mischievous blind girl encouraged Gyendsen to join them on this adventure: “Come on, Gyendsen! If no one likes you anyway, what is there to lose?”
My first reaction was to interfere, because I felt she was a little rude. But then it dawned me that Bungzo was summarizing all my life experiences: We live much more at ease if we don’t have to worry about conformity. And more than that, we can become risk takers and change makers if we have nothing to lose.
Being marginalized can put us in a very privileged position. The fact that we, seen from a conventional point of view, are ‘not normal’, will cause others to become alert, to interrupt their routine, to listen, to think and eventually to change. There are no expectations and thus no pressure to please.
All these thoughts built the foundation of Kanthari, an international institute for social change makers who, just like our blind children from Tibet, come from the margins. The name Kanthari originates from a chili, that is small but very spicy. It grows wild in the backyards of Kerala, on the margins of society. But this chili is not just a taste maker, it has enormous medicinal values. Next to lowering the blood pressure and functioning as a pain killer, it makes one alert and awake, just like a good cup of coffee does.
For us, Kanthari is the perfect symbol for someone who comes from the margins, has fire in the belly, and has the guts and spice to challenge the status quo. Someone who might not be everybody’s darling but therefore potentially be even more effective to make a difference.
For most of our Kanthari change makers, it is an unquestionable reality that being an outsider offers a unique perspective and understanding of what is going wrong in our society. Many now do celebrate the margins as a springboard for critical thinkers and driven doers.
The outsider advantage is something to embrace and only then can it can open the doors for a fulfilled and meaningful future. Over the past 11 years 226 social change makers from 48 countries were trained at Kanthari. This has resulted in 130+ organisations that positively impact the lives thousands of people who are positioned on the margins of society every day. They address issues ranging from women empowerment to alternative education, from Human rights to LGBTQ movements, from Environmental issues to peace building and many more!
Coming from the margins of society, Sabriye Tenberken (1970, German) developed an intrinsic interest to create ethical social change. She studied Tibetology/ Central Asian Sciences at Bonn University. In 1997, traveling on horseback through the Himalayas, she discovered that Tibetans who in majority are Buddhists have a stigma against people with disabilities. Blindness is especially seen as a punishment for something one has done in his/her previous life. Accordingly, blind children are often neglected, locked away in dark rooms or sent to the streets to beg for money. Experiencing this situation inspired Sabriye to start the first school for the blind in Tibet. Together with her life partner, Paul Kronenberg whom she met in Lhasa in 1997, she founded the Braille Without Borders, an organization that empowers blind people to take their lives in their own hands. In 2005, both of them founded Kanthari, an International Institute for Social Visionaries in Kerala, South of India. Kanthari fosters participants from all over the world, who, like Sabriye, have a passion to make the world a better place and strength to be forces of good rather than victims of circumstance. Sabriye is the driving force behind the academic program. Next to being a public speaker, Sabriye is the author of a bestselling book, “My path leads to Tibet“, which has been translated into 16 languages as well as the book, “Die Traumwerkstatt von Kerala, die Welt verändern, das kann man lernen”. She also starred in the award-winning documentary ‘Blindsight’. Sabriye Tenberken became fully blind at age 12.