Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Embangweni School for the Deaf and the Ministry of Persons with Disability and Elderly

The first school we visited for the three and a half city seven day survey trip is Embangweni School for the Deaf, a primary school that relied on total communication method within the huge Livingstonvia Synod of Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP). The Synod also consisted of several primary schools, a couple of secondary schools, a mission hospital, and a colonial house where the head minister and his family live. All hearing, in case you were wondering. Some deaf students would qualify for a secondary school but not very many of them. All teachers and administration live on the CCAP grounds as well.

Our visitor’s quarters had toilets and showers which I know the student housing does not provide. During a walk, I saw students, both deaf and hearing receiving water from a well to wash their clothes or carry the bucket inside to bathe. During the survey session I had “to go” very badly cos I’ve had too much instant coffee at breakfast - the guest toilets were too far away so I had to settle for student toilets – cement “outhouses” with doors marking “girls” and “boys”, and rectangular holes in the ground. Unfortunately someone pooped out a bad breakfast and missed the hole. The pile was covered by flies, so, no. I used the boy’s outhouse hoping that a boy wouldn’t walk in and have living daylights scared out of him by discovering a white woman sitting on her white haunches. Fortunately that did not happen.

We started the next day (a Friday) by accompanying students and staff to their morning prayers and greetings. The teacher who led the prayer used both his voice and signed, but naturally more voice than signing. They talked about the value of hard work, that God does not reward lazy people that sort of talk. For a demonstration, the boys gathered to ring out something (something like a Xylophone I cannot remember but it sure brought back memories of my own “hearing-impaired” class doing the same thing when I was in second or third grade), had bells and rang out a song with a teacher pointing at notes. I was wearing my hearing aid and all I could hear was different bell and jingling sounds, and some singing (not signing). The boys finished, and then the girls got up and signed/sang a chorus, with basic foot movements to count out the beats. Voices rang out differently to my tone-deaf ears.

Students, ranging from ages 5 to 20, and several students that I later found out were in their late 20s, one as old as 37 settled down to listen to the announcements of the day. Most of them were watching us, at Charles and Betty who were signing to each other. I couldn’t help but be amused and smile when I noticed some students discussing among themselves who is deaf who is hearing “no no that woman is not deaf that woman is interpreter I’ve seen her before” “that man is deaf” “white woman maybe deaf”– the universal deaf culture assessment and discourse of strangers in their midst. They were used to receiving hearing visitors, both white and African, but not Malawian signers and a deaf white woman too, so they were very intrigued by us. After brief introductions, the headmaster sent the children to their morning classes.

The headmaster held a brief meeting with us, explaining the school’s background (established in mid 1990s) to meet the need of having a deaf school up north since most deaf schools are in Central and South regions. The Embangweni school is also considered a place for students who failed in other schools to try their luck there. They are permitted to take exams for a number of times to give them a fighting chance to pass their certificate exams. Some thrived but others did not. Those who were unable to pass were placed in carpentry and tailoring classes to give them some skills (and hope). Hera, the headmaster placed the importance of Charles’ visit – not only as a leader of MANAD, but also as an employee at a Ministry office – that he is a role model to the children who’s never seen a deaf adult in that capacity.
Next, we joined the faculty for their tea break – and they asked Charles and me a series of questions about our experiences in deaf education. One thing that really turned me off (and I would later see in other schools, too) that there were exam results and announcements implying failure of students. And a teacher would point to a student and tell us that she failed four or five times before being placed in his carpentry class. I made the choice to share a personal story with them that I was not a star student in my early years, that both my parents and teachers were frustrated with me and pushed me to work. When I found an interest in history and social studies, I began to show more interest and improve. I encouraged the teachers to find their students’ interest and work with them on these.

The survey/needs assessment session a long and grueling one, for me because I was still learning Malawian Sign Language (MSL). Charles and Betty began with MANAD’s purpose of being and partnering with Finland to gather and document information from Deaf and hard of hearing Malawians, to see what needs and problems they have to enable Finland to provide more funding to help MANAD work on improving the Deaf living conditions in Malawi. I introduced myself as an intern for MANAD to learn from their work, shared my experience in a total communication school environment that I learned the same way as they did. I saw some heads nodding as if they understood that I went through the same thing they did.

Charles opened the floor asking students to come up and share their problems or experiences with their villages, schools, hearing family members and friends. Quite a number volunteered, saying that their home villages are generally OK, some thought they were “mad”, good relations with their neighbors, one student complained about a hearing soccer team pulling dirty plays to card the deaf players, among many others. Really not different from what deaf people everywhere encounter. The only differences are technology access since most of them do not have TV and media information, and acknowledging their rights for better things in life (education, jobs, etc). After bread and soda break, we then moved on to health information – access to clinics, communicating with doctors and nurses, the depth of information about TB, HIV+, cancer and AIDS. Many of students said they relied on their hearing family members or friends as interpreters. One young boy maybe 12 years of age, shared his experience about finding the right kind of dosage. He described going from nurse to nurse, finding information on instructions he could not understand until he found someone who were able to gesture with him, by using the hand as a clock or placement of sun during the day. “morning” “2 pills” “night” “none”. We three cheered him on and Charles encouraged that kind of initiative to the students.
Then came the toughest part. I’d already had a tense five minutes. Betty received a call and she and Charles had to step out. They told me to take over the floor – the students were patient with me and helped clarify signs for me. Since most of the students were weak with both English and Chichewa languages, Charles, Betty, and I were surrounded by students demanding assistance filling out the survey forms. Several teachers helped out to lessen the demand. I had four (or five) girls with me and a teacher helping out with communication barriers. It seems most students became deaf from an illness such as malaria, grew up with at least one signing family member and/or friend, and have overall stable relations with their families. For health information such as HIV they know the word or letters mean something bad, but not the depth or details about it. For priority goals for MANAD to work on, most asked for improvement in education and jobs. Charles was very impressed with the teachers (all men) who maintained good rapport with students and really communicated with them. The students rarely complained about their teachers, only that they wished for more materials to use.

At the end, I took a large group picture and many students wanted pictures taken of themselves. I gladly put my camera to use. We didn’t have lunch until 4pm and Charles was demanding (jokingly) that we have to give him our lunch for him to eat – then we ate dinner at 7pm with faculty and staff. All the information from the day was leaking out of my eyes and ears and I went to my room for some downtime. Then hit the sack early after observing Betty screen two teachers as candidates for the 2nd phase of interpreter training.

Two days later, we visited a deaf class within a hearing secondary school (name escapes me) in Kasungu, a couple hours north of Lilongwe. We met with five or six students and they are not doing so hot because their teacher’s signing skills deteriorated evidently under pressure from the school to pursue oral methods. It was rather depressing collecting information from them, especially after our experience at Embangweni. Charles sternly lectured the teacher for letting his signing skills slide, thus hurting the students’ chances in school and after. Most of the students didn’t know what they would do after completion of school – they are already taking tailoring and carpentry training. I recommended to Charles of a project in the future to construct and update (if any) a resource career guide for secondary school deaf students.

The classroom had small windows and was very dark, especially with a thunderstorm happening outside. We had trouble following conversations. Charles requested the teacher to turn the lights on, urging the importance for the Deaf to see each other. The teacher declined saying the Braille machine (the size of a small suitcase) is plugged in and he couldn’t unplug it. The dark classroom contrasted with bright and cheerful classrooms we saw in Embangweni and another in Lilongwe. We left the school, concerned and depressed about the future of those students we met.

On Monday, our last full day of work and travel we went to SOS Village School in Lilongwe, a primary and secondary school that contained two classrooms for younger and older deaf students. We didn’t meet the students however Betty screened three teachers for the deaf for the 2nd phase SLI training with Deaf Action. They had various signing skills and the classroom we used had large windows, the red brick walls and wooden ceiling reflected light well. Student’s work were pasted on the walls and strung up across the room. We left the school; a deaf secondary student found us and chatted with us on the way back to Lilongwe on a minibus. He knew Charles and Betty but chatted with me, and an opportunity to use my ever-improving MSL.

Before visiting the SOS Village School, we had coffee and cookies with Mr F Sapala, Director of Disability Program with his other subprogram directors, at the Ministry of Persons with Disability and Elderly. Charles and Betty gave their reports about the MANAD’s status in projects assisted by Finland and Scotland – evidently something they liked to hear about and that the relationship with both countries is ongoing. Charles also mentioned that MANAD is currently developing a project with the British High Commission Office for a second attempt at Deaf Awareness campaign. The people were very pleased that MANAD is working. They were particularly interested in my MA program in International Development specialsing in Persons with Disabilities and asked what courses I took. I replied and gave them the website address and Dr Wilson’s email as well. A woman, the head of a rehabilitation program asked if I studied rehabilitation and I affirmed saying its part of our coursework. She appeared to be content with my answer. One other program head informed me he had gone to Gallaudet in 1980s for some sort of disability related conference. He did enjoy the nightlife in DC, he added. Mr Sapala mentioned to me that his ministry along with the Malawian government very much supported my “new government” and is looking forward to working with President Obama’s administration. I felt that I was somewhat an US representative in the room and did my best to present honest but diplomatic answers. I did answer honestly that our race relations isn’t perfect when they asked me that. That was when they interjected saying President Obama is a good man for change. I think so, too!


Blogger MCC Brazil! said...

Kate, thank you for your thorough report and observations. Great that you were able to visit three schools and to see the difference in them all. Wish the second two could go to the first school. You all are gathering good information. I'm glad you are sharing a bit about yourself, in a non-threatening way, to give some encouragement and hope to the students. They so need to see you and Charles to be able to dream.

2/18/2009 7:57 AM  

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