In an office on a verdant campus Sabriye Tenberken settles into a chair and composes the expression on her face. Directly across from her a man in a uniform, a Russian ushanka (winter hat), and flash-lens aviators murmurs to himself while adjusting his shoulder-strap insignia. Two women with notebooks on their laps straighten their shoulders and begin to describe projects they hope to launch: one, a support group for women with albinism and another, a program on safe sex. Tenberken interrupts. "Look, Governor Crown is very busy," she says, pretending to be the official's irritable sister. "If you want to donate money, then we can talk."
The women look crestfallen as the governor continues to mop his brow, laugh without explanation, and answer imaginary calls from Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee. When the women finally give up, Tenberken's eyes, sea green and always alert, soften into a glow. She crinkles her nose and gives a toothy grin. The playacting session is over.
"We let them fail, let them think, and then help them up again," Tenberken says of the participants. at kanthari (the first letter is not capitalized, to symbolize equality), a training institute for social innovators in the southern Indian state of Kerala that she co-founded with her boyfriend, Paul Kronenberg (who played the governor). "It's funny at first," she says, speaking about the mock interviews. "But at some point [the participants] will say, Hey, this is what happens in my country, and now I know what to do."
A School That Values Suffering
The institution is unusual in several ways. First the enrollees. Among them are former child soldiers, albinos, disabled individuals—people chosen precisely because they have overcome personal adversity. The participants must also be able to pinpoint a time in which they had a "Gandhi moment," a reference to the turn toward activism that Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi experienced as a young lawyer when he was kicked out of a first-class train compartment in South Africa because of his skin color. The school roster includes students from the Chinese region of Tibet, Uganda, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Liberia, India, Nepal, and other developing countries. "A lot of development projects are very much top-down, very much fought by people who have never been in the situation," Tenberken notes. "That does not work."
Most extraordinary of all is Tenberken herself, blind since childhood but fully committed to social change since her mid-20s. At once warm and intimidating, she will offer her purse to a rickshaw driver and trust him to pick the right fare. And then ask straight-faced what you've done to your hair. It's an attitude toward life honed over many years. "When something terrible happens to you, you go through denial, self-pity, and a phase in which you ask, Why me?" she says. "If you can get over that, you come into the constructive anger part, and that's a great turning point. Then you can be detached and have a sense of humor."
No Textbooks, No Preaching
During the seven-month program, students are trained by teachers who are called "catalysts," experts in fields like marketing, banking, accounting, law, or art, who take them through the first phases of learning when ideas are torn apart and rebuilt. The lessons are tailored to complexities participants might face when trying to get their projects off the ground in their home countries. The woman hoping to fight discrimination against albinism in Zimbabwe will be faced with widespread beliefs that albinos are cursed by demons and that HIV-positive men can be cured by sex with an albino woman.
In Tansalesea, the imaginary country at kanthari, she'll get practice dealing with Babutheism, a made-up religious group whose chauvinistic supreme leader is the school's otherwise laconic administrative manager. The charges are then sent off for a six-week internship to nonprofits within India or Nepal to get practical training. Tenberken, 43, has created kind of school, one with an informal curriculum but free of what she calls "frontal learning." No textbooks, no syllabus, no preaching, she explains while sashaying down a spiral staircase.
Disability Into Possibility
Tenberken's own struggle with blindness and her zeal to transform "the idea of disability into possibility" played out over many years. When she was nine years old, growing up in the German farming village of Morenhoven, she started to realize there was something wrong with her eyes. What she didn't know was that she had been diagnosed with a degenerative retinal disease. Her parents had elected not to tell her right away. But once she learned the truth, she says, "I became horrified. You think of all the myths sighted people will tell you: Blindness is equal to darkness, and that is equal to isolation. I was isolated, I was discriminated against, but then on the other hand, I waited for darkness and darkness never came."
For years she mourned her blindness, sinking into self-pity and a sense of grievance for the things she had lost: her friends, her self-confidence, her idea of happiness. "I loved going really fast on the bicycle. I loved seeing. I was a person who heavily relied on my eyes, on colors, painting, faces, landscapes," she says.
Then one evening when she was 12, her father read to her from a book by the American political activist Angela Davis, and one phrase, "Black is beautiful," changed the way she saw her life. "I understood that hey, this has something deeply to do with my situation... It made me look for the beauty in blindness."
The Call of Tibet
At 17, while studying at a special school for the blind, she decided to travel to Tibet, to get far from her hometown—where people reminded her of what she could not do, she says—to somewhere she could be challenged in a profound way. She pursued Central Asian studies at the University of Bonn and created a braille script for the Tibetan language. Later it became the official braille for the blind in Tibet.
At age 26, she traveled to Tibet alone, exploring cities and meeting people. She ran into Kronenberg, who was taking a vacation from his engineering job in the Netherlands. During that first meeting, he made a politically incorrect joke about blindness. Tenberken unabashedly replied with another. "Meeting Paul was my biggest luck," she says. Kronenberg had spent six years battling rejection because of an unusual allergic reaction that shed the skin off his back, clothes and bedsheets "ripping off like Velcro." He too was searching for meaning in his life. Tenberken told him she wanted to start a training center for the blind, and he said he'd join in. But they forgot to exchange phone numbers.
Braille Without Borders
A year later, after her journey to Tibet, Tenberken found Kronenberg's phone number through a mutual friend and called him to repeat her offer. He was at work, solving crises, he says, like "there are no bubbles in my bubble bath, the whipped cream is leaking, I can't find my beer," as service coordinator at a bungalow resort. He quit his job, and five days later they were on their way to Lhasa to set up the foundation for Braille Without Borders. At this center, started in 1998, blind children learned how to speak three languages (Tibetan, English, and Chinese) and how to read and write. They also got vocational training in livelihoods such as cheesemaking, carpet-weaving, knitting, and compost production. "We've been together 17 years now," Kronenberg says, "because we draw energy from each other."
In Tibet, a belief that blindness is a punishment for sins in a previous life makes families fear the disability. "The concept of blindness is weird everywhere in the world because somehow sight is the most important thing to sighted people," Tenberken explains. Sighted people perceive blindness as what happens when they close their eyes, but "I never ever met a blind person who said it was completely dark," she adds. In Tibet, she set off on horseback, trotting through villages with local friends who helped her find blind children, some of them kept in dark huts or tied to beds their entire lives, their bony limbs too small for their years.
"I wanted to have a platform, a springboard, where I can give them all the skills they need to jump back into their own societies, to not be ashamed anymore, and really say full-heartedly, Yes, I am blind, so what?" And she succeeded. Asking her students what they could do better than their sighted siblings, their responses bubbled with confidence. Said one: "We can concentrate better, memorize faster, communicate better... we are not distracted by Hollywood and Bollywood."
Challenging perceptions of self-limitation even further, Kronenberg, Tenberken, and six Tibetan children attempted to scale the more than 23,000-foot-high Lhakpa-Ri peak in 2004, led by the first blind man to reach the summit of neighboring Mount Everest, Erik Weihenmayer. That expedition inspired a documentary called Blindsight, released two years later.
Then in 2005 Tenberken and Kronenberg moved to the city of Trivandrum in Kerala to "start a global springboard for social reformers," naming their training center kanthari after the pinky-size chili that grows wild in backyards in Kerala. "It wakes you up better than coffee," Kronenberg says. Their funding came from philanthropists, corporations, and other sources. The first batch of participants graduated in 2009, and since then 98 people from over 35 countries have started more than 60 social innovation projects as a result of the training.
Thuktan Yeshay Bodh, 27, a blind teacher from Spiti, a Himalayan desert valley located in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, created a greenhouse school that combined the need for fresh vegetables and warm classrooms. Thomas M. Sarko, 27, a civil war survivor from the Liberian capital of Monrovia, opened a café with a social purpose: to give young people the opportunity to join discussion groups about war trauma.
"At this school, it seems that healing is done through three channels: learning from the teacher, who faces adversity through her blindness, interacting with others who have overcome trauma, and putting all of this into action," says Zahir Janmohamed, former advocacy director at Amnesty International in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, phrases like "creative rage," "actionable adversity," "ethical visionary," "concept transformation," and "big dreams" are often within earshot anywhere on the vast campus.
Samuel Odwar, 33, a current student, wants to start a project to create support for parents of disabled children. His Gandhi moment came when he was 18 and studying at a university in Gulu, northern Uganda. He was kidnapped by members of the Lord's Resistance Army, a militant movement led by Joseph Kony that claims to fight for a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments and Acholi tradition. They kept him for two weeks, training him to kill on sight. They told him his first target would be a disabled woman. "I refused to do it," he says. "So they threatened to kill me." He managed to escape, walking days to reach home from a rebel camp near the Sudan border. "Years later, as it turned out, God gave me a deaf child. I struggle with him a lot."
Tapiwa Gwen Lisa Marange, 32, an albino woman from Harare, Zimbabwe, wants women like her to gather the strength to reject domestic abuse. Her moment came when after years of humiliation, she picked up her three children and left her husband. Now she's learning how to counsel other women in similar circumstances.
Doing Whatever It Takes
Sacrifice is expected. One of the conditions of admission is that applicants must pay for flight tickets so that they can prove their commitment to the program. Everything else is taken care of. "This is the first lesson," Tenberken says. "Some of them will give up straightaway, and some will do whatever it takes. We want the latter." In the past, students—the majority come from marginalized communities in the African continent—sold their cattle, made presentations in church, or conducted dance workshops to pay for their travel.
Tenberken and Kronenberg recently visited past students across eastern Africa while scouting for a location to start a kanthari campus there. In Kenya, alumnus Jane Waithera, an albino woman who works to improve the lives of people with the condition, wearing a glittering pink T-shirt with her blond hair bouncing like feather dusters, grabbed the microphone in the stadium and shouted, "I'm standing in front of you, and I am beautiful."
"Who can tell her she's not?" Tenberken says. "A kanthari is someone who doesn't have to please everybody. Nice boys and nice girls don't challenge the status quo."
Lead photograph by Giulio Di Sturco, National Geographic