Monday, April 13, 2009

Karonga School for the Deaf, Karonga

We received tips from Karonga locals that there is a school with deaf children, but we got the impression that it might be a unit within the school (think resource room). Much to our surprise and pleasure, we officially included a fifth school in Malawi to MANAD’s knowledge, Karonga School for the Deaf. Like Embangweni, it is funded and operated by the northern Synod of Church Central Africa Presbyterian. It is much smaller and sparsely equipped. We hired a cab from our motel lodge since it was rather a distance from town and we arrived late in the afternoon and the students were doing their afternoon activity, learning and practicing traditional dancing.

We met with the head teacher who turned out to have taught at one of the deaf schools near Mulanje, south of Blantyre. After requesting and securing an appointment to visit the school and its students for the next day, the students demonstrated their dances. I hate to say, but the boys’ dance is much more entertaining than the girls. The girls marched/danced around a teacher banging a drum with various arms, legs, and hip movements. However the boys stood in a semi circle around the drummer with one experienced boy leading. It’s very hard to describe – it consists of synchronized movements with their arms and legs, some boys holding a cloth in one hand. I took a brief videoclip of it and will post it somehow.

The next day, we returned to explore the campus and interview some older students. Children under ages 10 aren’t always reliable informants, requiring presence of parents. Those entering secondary schools are more ideal interview candidates than those of primary age. The school itself is small and rooms are used as classrooms and eating areas, and a couple, sleeping areas. The CCAP is in process of expanding the school – we saw some buildings in progress and shown a design of the new campus.
There are only three classes – divided into age groups. The lessons provided at our visits were; letters via speech and some English and Tumbuka languages in total communication method. Chichewa, despite the national language status is not widely spoken in the North. Sign language presence and recognition in deaf schools is still weak in Malawi. Mountview School one of two schools in Mulanje promotes full sign language while two others rely strictly on oral methods. Karonga and Embangweni use total communication (voice and sign) and teachers – in our very presence – preferred the students to use both voice and sign, not sign alone. The students, hopefully not for show for our visit, were eager to give answers to teacher’s query. In the beginning the teacher would review name signs of each student, and other students would point at the named student.

The enunciating of speech brought back memories of my own speech therapy lessons when I was their age. The teacher would hold a chicken feather and sound (and hiss/breathe) the letter. One student used a stick to indicate the correct letter on the blackboard. The teacher would lead a resounding round of applause. If a student made a mistake, the teacher would make a comical show of disappointment. It is a positive learning atmosphere though with good intentions. It’s a double load (and I can testify to that!) to learn the three R’s and speech each day. When I left the mainstreamed school and transferred to a deaf high school, there I slowly learned critical thinking. It took me years to learn and gain confidence in discussing issues as opposed to being one sided on things. I doubt that oral and total communication method leave room for critical thinking on various school subjects. Back to the point – it was really a trip down the memory lane for me.

The second class was having a maths lesson when we arrived. The location was in a corner of a church. Like the first class, total communication was used. One thing that struck me that day is that they used small rocks and stones for adding and subtracting. The teacher would point at one mathematical question on the blackboard and the chosen student replied with the numerical answer and supported it by counting out (in voice) their answer by placing the correct amount of stones in a chair for all to see. The students had their homework assignments done and with the teacher’s permission, they rushed to the five of us, Euphrasia, Byson, Haji, myself, and Malonji pushing and shoving each other to show us their answers for us to correct. Once order was improved, we were able to mark off the answers.

The third and oldest class held a Tumbuka lesson, in total communication. The teacher used individual words cut out in paper strips; placed one under his lips and enunciated the word by syllable. One word, wazungu, all the students, smiling, pointed in my direction. Confused, I turned to look what was behind me. Euphrasia smiled and said I’m a wazungu (a variation of muzungu). Oh. Ha.

Next, we visited the sleeping quarters. No beds for younger children, not even dressers or wardrobe – the school is that poor. The boys’ room we visited is one large room with dozens of mattresses and mats lined up by the wall with suitcases at the head. There is one bed for a head boy. I have to admit that the room is very clean and orderly. We also visited sleeping quarters for older girls – a small room with maybe four or five beds placed together, sharing few bed nets. The suitcases were at the foot of each bed. The bathrooms were favorable – showers and toilets.
After exploring the partially built new classrooms, we returned to the third classroom for lunch with teachers (the students had cleared out the benches and blackboard, swept the floor). The room was transformed into a dining area with pots of food waiting for us. We enjoyed a delicious lunch of chicken stew and boiled kale with nsima.

Some moments later, the five of us with three teachers in attendance interviewed two oldest students. They were both slightly intimidated by the large group looking at them, the girl more than the boy. Since they did not comprehend much of the Blantyre Malawi signing, one teacher helped translate. I think he did a little of prompting, too. The boy gave a little background and thoughts about pertaining issues around his deafness. The girl mostly shrugged as her answers to baseline query. We did not get much as we hoped out of the visit for the baseline, but finding the school existence and observing the classroom was a big deal for us.


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