Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Karonga Deaf and the Town

We were very fortunate to find a group of deaf people in Karonga one of the northernmost towns because MANAD, to our knowledge never made contact there. A schoolmate of one of our team members lived and worked in Karonga so we contacted him prior to the start of the trip.

After our appointment with Karonga School for the Deaf, we headed to the market section of town. Limba works as a trained carpenter, sawing and fitting shelves into walls of small shops. Because he is hard of hearing and has many hearing friends, Limba is successful at what he does. He also uses sign language but one can tell he doesn’t use much opportunity to utilize them. The team walked through a semi-maze of shops and found him measuring planes of wood to cut. Two teenage boys assisted with grunt work. After being introduced to the team, he was actually puzzled at the concept of an interpreter but once explained he got it and seemed mildly impressed at the role, saying he’s never heard of one. Limba had contacted several deaf prior to our arrival and they met with us. Since they were illiterate and not reliable informants in how they acquired their deafness (none of them were born deaf far as I can remember), Euphrasia instructed them to take the survey forms home with them to their families and return the following morning. A hearing friend of Limba’s who seemed to hang around the place, took an active role explaining to siblings of the deaf of what is needed to be done (mainly because he can speak three languages, English, Chichewa, and the regional language, Tumbuka) since Haji, our interpreter is fluent both in English and Chichewa, other than Malawi Sign Language (MSL). Limba mentioned that two deaf – one worked as a tailor and another in a hospital were unable to come due to work, but gave us information where to find them.

The next morning, we returned to find the two same deaf individuals in addition to Limba (one never returned – we were told she was on her way from quite a distance. We could not wait for her) plus couple of new faces. They all brought their brothers and one her eldest son. I thought two of them smelled quite fishy and I couldn’t help but think about cholera (the smell is associated with the illness) but it turned out, much to our shock, the deaf mother and hearing son waded across a fast moving river – up to their chests – to meet us. When enquired why they not use a bridge, the mother explained that the bridge is too far away and would add more hours (eeps) to their trip to meet us. Other than Limba, the mother (names kept escaping me unfortunately because I was overstimulated) is the most verbal about feelings about being deaf and problems encountered. She had very little schooling and her primary communication is sign language. Her son communicates with her using sign too but was rather bashful doing it. The two other deaf women we met were not very forthcoming about their views – as if they were never asked what or how they thought and feel. I have met a number of deaf people like it back home in the US and it’s like pulling teeth to get information but they do not do it on purpose – they rarely had opportunity to be expressive with thoughts, feelings and ideas. The glimmer of information we were able to use about the deaf conditions in northeastern Malawi, one woman makes her living by sifting dirt and stones out of rice and beans and paid very little for it, and one man makes an almost decent living by doing a dirty job most people wouldn’t do – collect refuse and dispose of them. (Not all towns have sanitation control – certain neighborhoods in Blantyre, for example, do) The deaf mother ekes out a survival as a villager by growing her own food and making them into meals and selling the remainder of the crop. Her children and her siblings do subsistence farming and odd jobs for the family to survive. They don’t look shabbily poor – just barely to make ends meet and be able to present themselves well. The three, not including Limba, because of their profound deafness, never made it far in school because of oralism. They were either ignored or promoted through. One woman, in a rare moment of clarity, said she was not motivated to do anything because no one gave her reason to. That’s my best attempt at describing her situation in my words. She eventually left school after grade six or seven because she was not getting the benefit of education.

After we left the market, we searched for the two other Deaf. The hospital told us that she was home sick and gave us directions to her home – we did find the deaf tailor, a rather impressionable woman who gave us information however she thought we wanted it. She signed very little and relied on her younger sister who also worked as a tailor as an informant/interpreter. Euphrasia, a veteran in taking surveys immediately became suspicious at the information provided, eventually got the needed information. We ran out of time and unable to find the sick hospital worker, we left for Chipita another target town of our trip.

Karonga was very successful because we only had one person to start with and we added a deaf school to MANAD’s knowledge. We were very fortunate to come across two men with different spectrums of hearing loss – within an hour of our arrival into town fresh off the 14 hour bus coach trip from Blantyre. The first one, Briton, was a Deaf, capital D, from Mzuzu who was in town visiting a (hearing) friend. He spotted us signing and apprehended us, ensuring that we were really signing not gesturing like hearing people. We were very thrilled because he is one of the FEW deaf Malawians who do not use their mouths to form words as they sign (think Ben Moore in DC. MSSDers and Gallaudetians from the 1990s should know! Ben, I say this with love and honor ) – that is how repressively oral Malawi is. One of the motels we hoped to (and didn’t) secure – one man who is hard of hearing boarded there. He works as a senior administration director at the District Assembly office in town. He wears a hearing aid (he can talk on his cell phone easily – he was constantly interrupted by his mobile) and doesn’t sign. What really blew us away is when he informed us that his office did indeed receive the survey forms that MANAD circulated in mail last December. Steven, his name is, forwarded them to some offices such as welfare he thought could be of assistance but they were never returned to him. And MANAD didn’t get any from Karonga area.
Through Euphrasia, one of the things I am learning about is the population limit MANAD can serve – signers only. But for survey reasons we did not discard information from people like Steven. The MANAD Constitution explicitly says the primary mode of communication is sign language. To our knowledge, and probably not yet, there is no hard of hearing association in the country to better serve the interests of people like Steven and people we would soon meet in Chipita.
Karonga town, the sign name of it is “boat” “sailing” due to its proximity and growing reputation as a major northern town situated on Lake Malawi for boaters and hikers (tourism, what else?). The town is also a major crossing point for those coming from and going to Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique. I took every opportunity to eat chambo fish because they’re fresh out of the lake, not refrigerated and shipped inland. My family and those who know me well will be shocked to learn that I ate the generous meat portions off its head, neck and behind the gills. Since my sister isn’t around to scrape them off for me, I sucked it in – tried to think of it as chicken as I scraped the skin and gills off the meat, then the meat off the bones, and picking remaining cartilage bones out. I set the remains in the bowl far away from my field of vision, and mixed the meat in with the rice and vegetables. My appetite remained, thank goodness.

Cattle roamed freely around Karonga and one had to watch out for the cow piles. Some resembled dry stacks of pancakes. I had the pleasure of stepping into a couple. One time, I was forced to walk through a herd that was grazing in front of the magistrate court (I didn’t have the camera on me!) they were all bigger than me and though mild-looking, their humps in addition to their horns and hooves seemed threatening. I tried not to jump as one of the cows bellowed in my direction. I must admit the calves with their little humps were adorable.

Long accustomed to southern Africans with the presence of people from Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambicans among the Malawians, I was struck by the migrant (mostly beggars) population in Karonga – the Somalis and Sudanese. They were much taller, their facial features showing part Arabic ancestry and lighter skinned. Children were around, and Somali/Sudanese men loitered in groups. I don’t recall seeing the women anywhere. There were also few men that I identified as pygmies. They were much shorter than me (I’m 5’2ish) and well proportioned as full grown adults.
Karonga is more famous for its dinosaur, commonly known as Malawisaurus a 12 meter long remains of a plant eating beast with long neck and tail and tiny head, exhibited at its cultural museum in the among small exhibitions. We just returned from Chipita and we had a free evening before returning to Blantyre the next morning and though tired and fried I was I immediately took off to see it. The museum is nice and small with Karonga’s origins from the Iron Age before colonialism – the Portuguese and English, the local skirmish between British and German colonial armies located along the Lakeshore coast during the First World War. My fried brain, exhausted from the weeklong travel and fresh off the five hour trip on a dirt road through the mountains inside a cramped pick up truck – took in very little information from the museum. Then came independence from the British, the dictatorship and repression under Kamuzu Banda and the eventual lead into democracy today as Malawians know it with Bingu wa Mutharika.

For two days and nights, we stayed at this motel lodge along the Lakeshore. I did have the pleasure of seeing the Lake’s famous sunrise (well maybe after the first 45 minutes) despite heavy clouds. To my disappointment, the shore is fenced off due to security reasons and once we asked permission from one of the lodge staff to unlock the gate and he acted as our brief guide. I think at least 50 feet of marshland between the shore and the fence, we had to walk through a maize garden (what they call cornfields) to reach the solid shore for a look. Sunset had set in and we did not have our flashlights. Cattle also roamed the lodge grounds. Once I showed my exasperation when beef wasn’t available for lunch, I commented to someone that someone could at least walked out there to whack a cow and butcher it. The reply, dryly returned said that the local cattle aren’t tasty.


Blogger Gael said...

Okay - who are you and what have you done with Kate Breen? The Kate Breen I know would have walked barefoot across hot coals before eating any creature with its head still attached. Good for you!

4/15/2009 7:49 PM  
Blogger Kate O. Breen said...

Hi Mom - it might be temporary. Two things, the chambo is GOOD. and I didn't want to be a weak kneed muzungu in front of the team :)

4/16/2009 1:38 AM  

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