By Oliver Mathews
Mutare, Zimbabwe, Dec 11 (efe-epa).- A social stigma and even a witch’s curse – that is how some communities in sub-Saharan Africa view deaf children, a taboo subject that specialized schools are trying to tackle by teaching sign language.
One of those is the Nzeve Centre for Deaf Children in the eastern Zimbabwean city of Mutare, where dozens of schoolchildren are breaking down those barriers and finding self-esteem in the process.
Schools like these are the main hope for children who are hard of hearing in sub-Saharan Africa, a region that is home to some nine million deaf kids, according to the Deaf Child Worldwide NGO.
The lack of awareness of the causes of deafness fuels cultural misconceptions and dangerous and harmful prejudices, such as that the children’s mothers were cursed while they were pregnant.
“No postnatal testing is done for deafness when a child is born,” Barbra Nyangairi, executive director of the Zimbabwe Deaf Trust (ZDT), tells Efe.
“Normally it is only recognized later when the child is older. Families face questions like: ‘What did you do?’”
Stigma causes many families to lock their children up at home and, in addition to denying them an education, prevent them from being accepted – or even seen – by the world.
For the past two decades, the Nzeve Center for Deaf Children (Nzeve means “ear” in the local Shona language) has been teaching dozens of children – and their families – to communicate through sign language, thereby empowering the children, who are also taught reading, arithmetic and art.
“As we conduct lessons, the mothers also learn sign language,” says Lyne Dirikwe, family coordinator of the Centre.
Places like Nzeve are helping to break the mold: equipping both deaf children and their parents and siblings with the ability to communicate with one another, and giving the children a sense of self-worth.
Dirikwe admits that there still is social stigma against deafness, but says parents of Nzeve’s pupils are turning into “ambassadors” to dispel these misconceptions.
“They go on parent-to-parent outreach meetings and they conduct deaf awareness and explain that they also are parents of deaf children, so the community understands better,” she says.
“In those communities where they have conducted awareness, discrimination has been reduced,” Dirikwe says.
The most obvious improvements are seen at home – once the children are able to communicate with their surroundings and express their needs and wants – and consequently in their self-esteem.
But sometimes “stigmatization of deafness starts in the home,” says Nyangairi. “They are not considered to be part of the family. Siblings don’t know how to communicate with siblings. They are really left out.”
IMPACT OF COVID
The “new normal” brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has also left its mark on the center, where the idiosyncrasies of sign language make it impossible for students to wear masks in class.
Instead, students wear a clear plastic face shield made by other young people with disabilities who participate in the vocational skills program.