How a Kibera youth is educating his community on sign language

In a vibrant room, a gathering of youthful individuals are seated around a table, engaging in what appears to be a silent exchange with one of their own. Upon observation, one would notice the subtle hand gestures and passing of notes, creating a unique form of communication that may not be easily deciphered by outsiders.

It is an intriguing sight for newcomers to Art360 Kibera, an art gallery situated within the informal settlement of Kibera. The unspoken dialogue revolves around the members’ adeptness in accommodating a deaf individual among them.

 But how did all this come about?

Last year, Dickson Wabusha visited the gallery with a keen interest in art. Although he could not verbally communicate, he was able to express his thoughts by writing them down. Unfortunately, his ability to interact was limited as only one other member of the gallery understood sign language.

Wabusha emmersed with his artwork a passion that led him to Art360 Kibera.

 Why I teach deaf lessons

“Deaf individuals often struggle to form connections, and making an effort to learn even the basics of sign language can make a significant difference in helping them feel included. That’s why I proposed the idea of teaching sign language to enhance communication with Wabusha. This is something I have been passionate about for quite some time ,”explained Lenox Carlose, a 25-year-old volunteer who took on the task of teaching the group.

Carlos is a mechanical engineer who resides in Kibera. One of his cherished pastimes is teaching sign language, a skill inspired by his brother. His knowledge in sign language fostered a unique connection with Wabusha. Upon the group’s acceptance of the proposal, they both committed to holding classes weekly at the gallery.

Gradually, the members began to grasp the fundamentals of sign language, enabling them to communicate more effectively with Wabusha.

“I was truly elated when I arrived at the gallery and learned of the group’s interest in learning sign language. Teaching them my native language was a fascinating experience, and their positive response was truly heartwarming ,”conveyed Wabusha through sign language, with Carlos serving as the interpreter.

The experience of Carlos’ younger brother mirrors that of Wabusha, as they both lost their hearing due to Meningitis, despite not being born deaf.

“I lost my hearing at six months, after contracting meningitis,”Wabusha gestures.

Meningitis is the inflammation of the brain and spinal cord tissues due to infection, with bacterial meningitis being the most severe form. It can lead to lasting effects like hearing loss, seizures, limb weakness, vision impairments, speech difficulties, memory issues, and communication problems, as well as scarring and limb amputations after sepsis.

Facing a new communication challenge, Carlos took on the task of learning a new language to better connect with his brother. He used online tutorials and received guidance from his brother, who served as a strict yet valuable teacher.

“He was a very strict instructor, which proved incredibly beneficial, particularly in navigating the loops of the language. He served as the most relevant individual to whom I could directly apply the lessons, allowing me to effectively communicate with other deaf individuals. This facilitated a quicker learning process and expanded my circle of friends, who also contributed to broadening my understanding, “Carlos elaborates.

Wabusha teaching a member sign language

The bold move…

Before starting his Art360 class, Carlos had already been sharing his newly acquired skills since 2022 with neighbors, friends, and others who were interested. Surprisingly, he discovered that there were more deaf individuals in the community than he had expected.

The 2019 Kenya National Population Census revealed that there are 153,381 individuals in Kenya who are deaf and above the age of five.

According to Carlos, analysis of the primary challenge faced by the deaf community is the linguistic barrier, leading to a sense of isolation from the broader society.

“In my previous conversations with my deaf friends, we discussed the various challenges they encounter on a daily basis. One recurring theme was their feelings of isolation and neglect within the community. They expressed how difficult it is for them to find someone to communicate with, leaving them to face their struggles alone. I have listened to their grievances, and they are truly heart-wrenching,”Carlose shared.

Carlos came to the realization that by educating more people on sign language, this issue could be addressed. Therefore, he started hosting classes in his modest room, welcoming individuals with diverse motivations to learn.

“Some individuals sought to acquire a basic vocabulary in order to communicate with their hearing-impaired coworker or neighbor. Others expressed a genuine interest in learning sign language. The fact that they just wanted to learn it  made me proud to be a part of it, “he expressed.

He also expanded his  sessions to include Buruburu Church, where he conducts classes subsequent after Sunday services. His classes attracted attendees such as Grace Anyango, a fellow member of the congregation. Anyango’s original curiosity in sign language stemmed from professional motives, but over time, it blossomed into a genuine passion.

“While working at a barbershop, I had a regular client who could not speak. Over time, I learned sign language to communicate with him. Eventually, I joined Carlos’ class, which made learning even easier and more engaging, “she shared.

Challenges …

Learning sign language can be quite challenging, according to Carlos. He explains that it is not as simple as it may appear, especially for those who are not fully committed to learning it.

“The language used by the deaf community is unique. When communicating in writing, they often use a form of broken English, which they also expect you to use. This can initially be overwhelming, particularly for individuals who are not deaf. On the other hand, mastering sign language requires consistent practice and unwavering dedication. These challenges may sometimes discourage individuals from continuing to learn ,”he elaborates.

Carlose knowledge in sign language is what fostered a unique connection with Wabusha.

On his end, he has encountered challenges that have prevented him from extending his lessons as desired.

“I had to discontinue the home classes due to my limited availability, even though the students were eager to continue. The lessons used to run from 6pm to 8pm after my work hours. However, it became increasingly difficult to juggle both as my work schedule became more demanding, “he explained.

Despite holding classes in Buruburu, transportation also poses a hindrance not only for him but those he tutors.

“I have encountered the difficulty of finding a suitable venue to cater to the diverse backgrounds of my students. Occasionally, some individuals are unable to attend for various reasons, and I must display empathy towards their circumstances. Furthermore, I do not receive compensation for my services; I volunteer willingly and intend to persist in doing so. However, the provision of sign language resources for the lessons would greatly enhance the learning experience ,”he elaborates.

Anyango asserts that individuals who are deaf are equally deserving of care and support. And such assistance can only be effectively provided when their unique needs are understood through the way they are communicating.

“The introduction of sign language within educational curricula is very important. This inclusion will foster equality and facilitate their harmonious integration within our communities, free from any sense of inferiority ,”she stated.

The aspiration…

Similar to countless others, Carlos harbors the ambition to disseminate sign language proficiency to as wide an audience as possible. He stresses the importance of impacting individuals one by one, as he firmly believes that the cumulative effect of numerous small steps will ultimately yield a significant influence.

“I am dedicated to making a positive impact on individuals, with the hope that they will, in turn, inspire others. While I am not opposed to reaching a larger audience, I have found that not many are open to learning. Therefore, I will focus on making small steps for now, finding satisfaction in the knowledge that my efforts are helping to bridge the gap of isolation that many have experienced. The future may be uncertain, but achieving this vision would be a dream realized,” he concludes.





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