Sabriye Tenberken & Paul Kronenberg: Facilitative Humanitarianism

I have always considered myself to be an idealist, a dreamer. I cannot recall a time when I ever felt it necessary during my imprudent leaps of faith to look out above for the ‘realist’s ceiling’. Sure I worry but I never worried enough to aim lower. Yet despite the obvious benefits of being an idealist, which manifest through an unwavering optimism, I have encountered a great many who turn their noses up at the first sign of anyone exhibiting any sort of ambition that strays from the conventional. I think a mistake that many self-proclaimed ‘realists’ make is to assume that there is an absence of practicality in the rational of the idealist. Is it not the idealist who shifts the paradigm of what is deemed possible?

Currently I’m spending my summer in Shanghai, learning a great deal copy writing and editing for a niche travel company, teaching English and learning Mandarin. About a week ago my boss invited me to this extravagant entrepreneurs dinner/event in which I felt appropriately out of place. I greatly appreciated the invitation; I just didn’t understand why I was there. After about half an hour of nauseating small talk – “hi, so what do you do? Take my card” etc. we sat down for a presentation being delivered by Paul Kronenberg.

I had no idea who this guy was but he was one of the only people at the event in jeans and a t-shirt so I instinctively assumed that what ever he had to say would be more to my taste than the corporate small talk that preceded. The talk was entitled, ‘The Right To Be Blind Without Being Disabled’. Paul began to speak. My boss looked back and smiled at me. It was at that moment I understood why I had been invited. Initially I thought it peculiar that someone like Paul was speaking at an event such as this but I soon realised that even humanitarian projects are not exempt from needing financial support.

The moment the talk ended I jumped to my feet and made an overzealously uncoordinated rush towards Paul. I asked if he was in town long and if he had time for a conversation with me before he left Shanghai; he gracefully obliged and took it upon himself to ask my boss if I could have the afternoon off to speak with him. My boss kindly agreed and the following day I hopped on the metro and made my way over to meet him.

Paul and I spoke for hours on topics ranging from love to education to politics and humanitarianism. He spoke with such composed eloquence, such infectious passion; I got a real feel for Paul’s lofty ideals that day. Although it was not Paul’s ideals that left me in awe of him, rather it was the level of practicality in which he approached and acted upon those ideals.

Paul has a technical background, a graduate in mechanical engineering and has used his skill-set to proactively engage in developmental projects alongside the people of Africa, Eastern Europe and Tibet.

“Unfortunately a lot of privileged people go to these countries and like you were saying:

‘do you have real experience?’ ‘No but they need my help’.

“If you can’t build a school then why are you going there to build a school? You are not helping anyone; you’re just standing in the way.”

“Either you bring them a skill that they don’t have or you shouldn’t go.”

 Paul spoke about two of his most prominent and most successful projects that he and fellow humanitarian Sabriye Tenberken have set up: Braille Without Borders in Tibet and kanthari in India being the follow up to BWB.

In Tibet there is a deep prejudice against the blind, with some believing that they are cursed because of misdeeds committed in a past life, subsequently justifying a profound mistreatment of a great number of blind Tibetans. In the summer of 1997, Sabriye Tenberken, who is blind herself, travelled to Tibet to assess whether there lay any possibility of providing training to the blind and visually impaired inhabitants of the highest region on earth. By chance, it was on that same trip that Paul met Sabriye.

“I was lucky I met Sabriye in Tibet in 1997. I was traveling as a backpacker Sabriye was already there with the goal of finding out about the lives of blind people in Tibet.”

 

Before leaving Tibet and going their separate ways, Paul asked Sabriye to call him when she planned to return to Tibet to start the first school for the blind. Nine months later Sabriye called him and said she was leaving for Tibet to start the project. Paul decided to join her and quit his job the next day. Five days later they were both on a plane back to Lhasa, together.

Braille Without Borders is very simple, blind people are discriminated against and what we try and do is give them an opportunity to learn. By learning they get skills, skills gives someone value, and value leads to dignity. 

“When you have dignity nobody can touch you and that gives you self-confidence, and that’s really what you need in life.”

There is a huge difference between helping people and facilitating them. Paul and Sabriye are sharply aware of the distinction and that is what I found the most authentic about their brand of humanitarianism. Today, the blind children they teach are in the minority for an assortment of completely different reasons. Thanks to Braille Without Borders these children can now speak and read English, Mandarin and Tibetan. They were not ‘helped’, they were not passive receivers of charitable donation; instead they were facilitated with the skills that put them in a position to be the main breadwinners in their families.

Sabriye Tenberken

“With Braille Without Borders we started a preparatory school. We started a vocational training centre, with market gardening, agriculture, baking bread, kitchen management, compost production, knitting, carpet weaving, cheese production about ten to twelve professions that were never done with blind people anywhere in the world.”

“Then we started a Braille printing press and we also started this self-integration program where it’s all about developing an individual’s confidence. A lot of blind people are not allowed to trust themselves because their able surroundings say ‘you can’t, you can’t, you can’t’. We promote the right to be blind without being disabled.”

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I went on to speak to Paul about kanthari their follow up project to Braille Without Borders. kanthari (the lowercase k represents minimal hierarchy) is an institution based in Trivandrum, Kerala in the South of India. Paul and Sabriye founded the institution with the goal of offering a seven-month leadership program for “visionaries who have overcome adversity and are keen to drive ethical social change”.

“A kanthari is a plant that grows wild in every backyard of Kerala, a small but very spicy chili with a number of medicinal values. A kanthari is a symbol for those who have the guts to challenge harmful traditions and the status quo, who have fire in their belly and a lot of innovative ideas to make a positive difference.”

“kanthari for us was the logical next step. We want to have our former students running the show in the future so initially we thought we were just going to train blind people but then Sabriye and I took a step back and saw that there are so many universal issues and there are so many people involved in these problems and issues who want to drive change.” 

kanthari-projects

Talking about kanthari prompted Paul to express his apt views on mainstream education. Highlighting an issue that both I and many individuals I know experienced as we struggled to navigate our way through mainstream education:

“Hey come on, we don’t need teachers anywhere in that sense. The word teacher needs to be redefined and that’s why we call ours catalysts. We need catalysts and you know the best thing about a catalyst is that it is a substance that you add to a process and it excels the process. But in the end the catalyst is not used up. You can take it out and you still have it there, ready to be used again. At the end of the term our catalysts say, ‘when does the next course start!’ They could start again the next day.” 

“But teachers in mainstream schools say, ‘thank god it’s the holidays!’ They count down the days until a holiday and for most of them it’s a job. And teaching should not be a job! It should be a calling! Good teachers get broken down by the system, the energy gets taken away, people are not motivated anymore and it all crumbles.”

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Sabriye and Paul understand that learning is a creative process, not an exercise in obedience or a test of ones memory. effectively applying this understanding has helped them implement a selection of very simple solutions to mainstream schooling’s critical errors by way of aiming to create an environment that caters to the learning styles and creative processes of each of their students as oppose to forcing the student to conform to the preferences of the educator.

“So on the first day of school the teacher asks the students,

‘what happens in autumn? Johnny?’

Johnny says, ‘in autumn it’s my grandfather’s birthday’

Teachers says, ‘wrong!’

The teacher asks Lizzie,

Lizzie says, ‘In autumn the leaves fall from the tree’. 

Teacher says, ‘correct Lizzie’

Then Johnny thinks, ‘ah now I know how it works, as long as I say what the teacher wants to hear then I’m a good student!’ – The ‘thinking for yourself process’, killed.”

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I asked Paul if he had any advice for those who yearn to become a catalyst for change but feel that the pull of conventional societal expectations are too strong?

“Of course there are always a thousand legitimate reasons not to start or follow a new idea. Instead of focusing on why something would/should not be possible, the focus should be on the one reason why it would be worth it and why it is possible.” 

“Most people start by saying, what can I do? I am just one person, how can I make a difference? We always say, just bite into one small kanthari, and you will see that a small chili can make a huge difference.”

 

At the start of this article I spoke mostly about the benefits of embracing an idealist’s disposition. However I had not mentioned the continuous existential self-interrogation and feelings of futility that partner up with a desire to do more than the options that the conventional definition of ‘success’ present to me. Coping with the latter is especially difficult while I live in a society that has been attempting to funnel me into position from the moment I was conceived. What Paul Kronenberg and Sabriye Tenberken represented to me was a much-needed reaffirmation.

Sabriye and Paul reaffirmed that the insatiable desire to do good in the world is not a petulant hope, not a foolish dream that takes some longer to grow out of than others. Instead it is a desire that is incessantly dismantled and extracted from us piece by piece as we enter and journey through adulthood. The desire to do good is replaced by a desire for status, for money and what ever it takes to acquire such vices. Fooled into thinking that passive consumption will culminate in happiness, but when does it end?

Of course there are anxieties that begin to permeate at the very thought of opting out of the crowded path towards conventional success but whether you choose to utilize it or not, there is a space to resist. It is there and it widens the more you ask yourself, ‘What do I really want?’

“You see, I think the nicest thing about our work is that we found out how simple it all really is.”

Kanthari, Braille Without Boarders

There are a number of ways to Get Involved with and show your support for kanthari: You can spread the news of kanthari’s existence, point a potential participant in the right direction, Make a Donation or apply to become a Volunteer.

If anyone has certain skills they are eager to share then please fill out an application to become a Mentor to kanthari graduates or a Catalyst.

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