In the world of silence, Zimbabwe’s deaf community fights for recognition

By Christine Chiromo

At the tender age of 14 while others her age were laying a foundation for their future, it was not the case with Clara (not her real name) whose dreams and goals were shattered when the world of silence engulfed her.

After life dealt her a bitter blow leaving her hearing impaired Clara who had to drop out of school was a victim of poverty, discrimination and abuse.

“I stopped going to school in 2007 while I was in Form Two, because I suffered a freak of nature through migraines that left me profoundly deaf. So, for five years, i was homebound due to my inability to continue my studies, ” she said.

While she had nowhere to turn to better her life academically, she had to recuperate hoping another day would be better, another day would see her hearing restored and that she would continue with her school work which she had put on hold for a while. 

Her family tried everything to have her hearing restored from visiting numerous ear specialists to trying their luck with most of the renowned pastors, prophets and even traditional healers, yet none of these could cure her nor reverse the blow nature had dealt on her.

When she realized her situation was beyond hope she started looking for avenues to further her studies even if she had to be home schooled, despite the challenges she was encountering.

Her path to be educated was an ardours one.

Through determination however, her fortunes turned for the better as she was now able to persue her education.

She is one of the many young women who are marginalised because of their hearing impairments and are failing to further their education due to communication difficulties.

“Most people living with disabilities compete with people who are physically able for jobs and school placement and only hearing-impaired people lose the race due to lack of effective verbal communication,” she said.

Chiedza Hukuimwe who has both a hearing impairment and also being mute is a typical example of young women who rise above their physical challenges and work towards attaining better livelihood for other women who are physically challenged.

Not deterred by the conforming challenges she faces, she visits rural areas around Marondera in search of deaf peers she can educate in sign language.

Hukuimwe is a multi-talented person who is skilled in sewing, farming, and hair plaiting amongst her many talents.

Currently gardening and plaiting hair are her current sources of income.

“I sell my garden produce in villages. I also plait all hairstyles at my saloon which is outside our home yard,” she explains, “l managed to help a few with food, clothes as well as books and pens.”

She narrates now many hearing-impaired people do not have adequate knowledge of how to communicate.

Their rights and are often ignored due to communication challenges.

She further explained how her venture into the world of modelling suffered a setback due to sponsorship challenges.

She had to give up that career path after attaining the Miss Deaf Zimbabwe title 2017.

Her journey thus far illustrates how deaf persons are marginalized as there was a shock when she won a paltry US$8 as a prize which is a far cry from the pageants of physically able persons

The Chairman of Sunrise Sign Language Academy, sign language lecturer and interpreter Douglas Mapeta spoke of how he came to learn and love the silent language.

In 2012, he lost his son from water burn injuries but during his stay in the hospital, he noted how healthcare staff failed to communicate with deaf clients.

As a result, after his son passed away, he took sign language courses in Zimbabwe, Kenya and South Africa.

He then started an institution to bridge the communication gap and make sign language a training tool.

“I train Ministry of Health alth and Child Care personnel and Parliament of Zimbabwe staff,” he explains.

“The problem is that there is not enough focus on the hearing impaired and creation of awareness is needed by all stake holders to tackle the communication gap.” 

He explains how most deaf persons suffer in silence as they cannot access healthcare and education due to the language barrier.

He said, “there is need for all stake holders to work together and combat the problems physically challenged people face.”

To raise awareness on deaf issues every last week of September there is a deaf awareness week which aims at celebrating the rich culture, heritage and languages of all deaf and hard of hearing community.

The2020 theme of reaffirming deaf people’s rights aims at creating awareness that sign languages are for everyone.

In commemoration of the day, Zimbabwe broadcasting corporation (ZBC) sign language news presenters such as Noble Mawunga said, he was only a teacher in a family of 6 and when his uncle married someone who had a hearing impairment, he had the challenging task to communicate with the couple.

He noted how he acted as an interpreter to the rest of the family to communicate what the couple was saying and that was the motivation behind his learning the special needs language.

Sign languages are a fully-fledged natural language, structurally distinct from the spoken languages.

According to the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), there are approximately 72 million deaf people around the world with more than 80 percent of them living in developing countries.

As per WFD data, there are more than 300 different sign languages being used around the world

The 2020 International Day of Sign Languages aims to help promote, protect and preserve the 300+ different sign languages in existence.

The International Week of the Deaf was first started in September 1958.

The week has since then evolved into a global movement.

Bayengi Mokiya a mute and hearing-impaired interpreter, who is based in Botswana said he wishes there was more awareness for people to know about sign language, about deaf culture and deaf languages for hearing impaired people to be better understood.

“I need your help to spread the news that deaf people are not different from any other person. The deaf are the same as non-deaf persons and the only difference is that the hearing-impaired use hands to communicate while non-deaf persons use their speech and hearing capabilities,” he explains.

Speaking on the occasion of the International Day of Sign Languages, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the day has fallen in the midst of a pandemic that has disrupted lives everywhere, including the lives of the deaf community.

He went on to add, “I call on all local, national and global leaders to protect and promote the diversity of sign languages and cultures, so that every Deaf person can participate in and contribute to society and reach their full potential.”

While sign languages are structurally different from spoken language, they are full-fledged natural languages as well. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities acknowledges and encourages the use of sign languages and recognizes the fact that sign languages are equal in status to spoken languages.

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