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 ARTIKEL - Currently all articles are available only in English

The Mind's Eye: what the blind see

A German Voyager's Bold Vision for Tibet's Blind

German "Helen Keller" helps Tibetan blind children out of darkness

HONG KONG MORNING POST (October/13/2003)
A vision of hope

German Sabriye Tenberken lost her sight in her teens but never felt blindness was a handicap. Through her Braille Without Borders organisation she is helping others like her in Tibet think the same way, writes Tschang Chi-chu Blindness is sometimes compared to being in prison, the darkness acting as a barrier to the outside world. For twins Jampa and Dorjee, however, being sightless led to literal imprisonment. For the first 15 years of their lives, neither left the confines of their family home, a five-room, mud-brick house in the southwestern Tibetan town of Lhatse. Such was the stigma associated with the condition that the boys'

parents - one of whom, their father, is also blind - thought it best to keep them at home. So when their sister, Kyila, was born without sight two years after the boys, she, too, was consigned to a sequestered life. By the time help arrived, in the form of news four years ago about a school for the blind, the twins could barely walk properly because of years of confinement, although Kyila was stronger because she helped

with the housework. In 1999, the brothers' father heard from a relative living in Lhasa about a boarding school in the capital called Braille Without Borders. Knowing students were admitted free of charge, their father spent a day travelling to Lhasa to ask that his children be admitted. The three were enrolled in the school a week later.

"My parents were happy," remembers 19-year-old Jampa. "They said, 'Even if you're blind you can study.'"Last week, Jampa and Dorjee were among Braille Without Border's first graduates. Like the six other students with whom they completed their education, the brothers have big plans for the future. Using the US$1,000 loan they have received from Braille Without Borders and other donors, the twins plan to open a teahouse in Lhatse called the Himalaya Tea Garden. Their father, they say, will leave the fields to help manage the new venture. "I will make coffee and green tea for foreigners," says Jampa. "For Tibetan people, I will make sweet tea and butter tea."

Braille Without Borders was founded in 1998 by Sabriye Tenberken, a German woman who was blinded, reason unknown, as a teenager. Assisted by her sighted Dutch partner, technician Paul Kronenberg, she set up not only the school but also a system to teach the blind to read and write using the world's first Braille system for Tibetan script. Tenberken, who had developed the system while studying Tibetan in Germany in the 1990s, made her first trip to Tibet in 1994. She returned in 1997 to meet with government officials about setting up a non-governmental organisation. Apart from learning to read Tibetan, the children also learn Chinese and English as part of a curriculum that includes aikido and home science. The school's five teachers, three of them blind Tibetans themselves, teach students aged four to 21 basic mobility skills as well as how to clean, cook and make butter tea. Some students also learn massage physiotherapy and computer science to help them lead self-sufficient lives. And beginning in May next year, Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to climb Mount Everest two years ago, will start training students in mountaineering.

"When I came to this school I learned not to be sad about being blind," Kyila says. "I found the courage to do everything without fear." After she graduates, the 17-year-old plans to open a clinic offering massage. Of Tibet's population of 2.62 million people, 33,000 are blind, according to the San Francisco-based Seva Foundation. This is one of the highest rates of blindness in the world owing to its high altitude, which exacerbates cataracts, says Dr Larry Brilliant. "Their eyes are constantly exposed to the sunlight,"

said the ophthalmologist and acting director of the Seva Foundation. The problem is also acute in other high-altitude areas such as Nepal and northern India, which is why, in November, Ms Tenberken and Mr Kronenberg plan to visit Ladakh, in northern India, to look for a site to establish a second Braille Without Borders school that, they hope, will be open next year.

Many Tibetans are unaware of the reasons for blindness and base their superstitions about the condition on Buddhist beliefs. A central tenet of Buddhism, the main religion in Tibet, is the law of karma, which holds that responsibility for unwelcome actions is borne by the person who commits them. "The worst thing is they thought that blindness was a punishment for something you had done in your past life," says Ms Tenberken. "Some people thought that blind people were possessed by demons." She adds that some blind children never learn to walk because their parents keep them tied to a bed, while others are locked in dark rooms for years because their parents are embarrassed by their blind offspring. One child Ms Tenberken has helped was traded for a child who could see. Left behind in Lhasa's Barkhor Square by his father, the 11-year-old boy, Tashi Pasang, was discovered by a family who handed him to Braille Without Borders. During her travels, Ms Tenberken also met an eight-year-old blind boy who was given the important task of herding yaks and goats by his village chief. Unlike other blind children who were ostracised, this boy was integrated into village life. This boy inspired her to set up Braille Without Borders.

"I really wanted to create a training centre where on one hand, blind children, adolescents or adults are trained in special techniques and methods," says Tenberken. "But the more, much more important thing, I thought, was giving them confidence."

In addition to opening a new school in India, Ms Tenberken and Mr Kronenberg plan to start admitting blind adults up to 50 years old to train them in farm management so they can continue as nomads,yak herders or farmers. "This is actually the biggest group in Tibet. We want to train them in their own jobs," says Ms Tenberken. "For example, if they were horse raisers or yak herders ... we try to give them new techniques and new methods so they can perform their old job again."

The pair also plan to conduct workshops for blind people from developing countries such as Mongolia, Turkey and Nigeria to demonstrate how best to apply for grants and organise non-government organisations. The school had an inauspicious beginning five years ago. Originally housed in a local Lhasa school, students were kicked out, Ms Tenberken says, after a dispute in which the principal was accused of

pocketing money meant for Braille Without Borders. The episode convinced Ms Tenberken and Mr Kronenberg to buy a six-room Tibetan home to house the school's first class of students even though they did not have sufficient funds at the time. Still in the same location, the building has grown from its original six rooms and now accommodates 30 students. When they started building, Mr Kronenberg says, "We didn't have the money yet." He adds: "We were lucky Sabriye wrote a book." A bestseller in her native Germany, Ms Tenberken's memoirs allowed the pair to pay off the home. The book has been translated into nearly 12 languages, and the English edition, My Path Leads To Tibet, was published in January this year.

Although the organisation receives aid sporadically from private sponsors in Europe and the United States, Ms Tenberken and Mr Kronenberg return to Europe for three months a year to try to raise money, among other things. The pair, however, do not use gloomy images to advance their cause. "We advertise with happy children," says Mr Kronenberg. "Of course, we could get more money if we showed poor little blind children. But they have dignity. We don't want money for pity."