The Story of Thembi and The Singing Tree

By Ken Youngstein
Friday, 24 March 2017

One might say that The Singing Tree was nearly 50 years in the making. In 1967, I graduated university, as a psychologist, and went to Uganda to study mother-infant behavior in chimpanzees. This led to many years spent in several parts of Africa, working among others, in the healthcare sector. In 1978, I set up my own company with the aim developing medical educational programs for both professionals and patients. Based first in New York City, and later in Zurich, I would spend many months of each year providing these services on a pro-bono basis, to charities and government organizations throughout Asia and Africa. My challenge was always to find the right message and the right medium to reach each target audience – to deliver information that was culturally appropriate for each audience.

In 2016, I attended a wedding and was seated next to a man who, I learned, worked for Orbis. I explained what I do and offered my services, should they be interested. Eight weeks later, I was on a plane to Cape Town. Our goal was to develop an “educational toolkit” that Orbis and their partner clinics could use to educate local health professionals, patients and the public about eye care. Since then, my team and I go to Southern Africa every so often to further our work on this effort.

Around the same time, my wife and I became involved with the organisation Room To Read. Room To Read work throughout the developing world to promote education through the building of libraries, training teachers, supporting girls, and publishing children’s books in local languages.

80% of all blindness and visual impairment can be avoided with countless children losing out on
the magical world of books because of eye sight problems that are easy to fix, but they aren’t
getting their eyes tested on time.

I realised that there was an opportunity to merge my work with these two charities by producing a book, for children, in local languages, about eye care. Consulting with Orbis, we decided to focus on “refractive errors”; poor vision that can be corrected with spectacles commonly referred to as nearsightedness and farsightedness. These conditions affect a large segment of the population, are easy to diagnose, easy to correct, and dramatically change people’s lives, allowing them to read, learn, work, and play.

Thembi and The Singing Tree

I found inspiration for The Singing Tree from my own youth: I received first pair of spectacles at age five, when I began school. My mother often told me the story of how, when we left the optician, I looked up the sky and shouted, with delight, “Look Mommy, birds!”. Thinking about that experience, I developed the story of a child who could not see the birds, so she assumed that the beautiful songs she heard were made by the tree under which she often sat. The story also talks to the problems of children with any kind of vision problem; their inability to interact fully at play or school and the resulting isolation.

Orbis, in collaboration with Room To Read has published the first edition of Thembi and The Singing Tree in four South African languages: Sepedi, isiTsonga and isiSwati, plus English. The second print run was an isiZulu version, which was distributed in partners hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal to children awaiting treatment and surgery, as well as by partners TREE and the Brien Holden Vision Institute among primary school learners. An adaptation has also been produced for distribution in Zambia.

Room To Read continues to distribute the book to local schools and libraries, while Orbis distributes the book through its clinics and public outreach programs. The book has even travelled as far as Asia, with Orbis India adapting The Singing Tree to use in its programme to reach 4.5 million school children and test for refractive error.

More than 5000 copies of the books has been printed
and distributed in Southern Africa alone.

Our hope is that The Singing Tree will help children, their parents, and their teachers to better understand the need for testing children for eye problems and for providing appropriate care to allow all children to reach their full potential.

Download your free copy of Thembi and the Singing Tree, and share the joy of sight.


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