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Living in a world of silence, sign language

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THE birth of a child brings much joy as it is believed to cement the love between the parents, and all couples’ hopes are to bring into the world a child that is healthy and strong without any defects.

Ropafadzo Mapimhidze

This, however, is not always the case.

The luck of the draw can bring you what you never anticipated, like having a child with a speech and hearing impairment.

This has been the experience of a couple that resides in Crowborough, a high-density suburb adjacent to Kuwadzana in Harare, who have, not just one child, but two children, with such a defect.

When Tsitsi Shamuyarira-Monde gave birth to her second child, she was startled to discover a few months down the line that her new baby daughter was unresponsive and too quiet.

Little did she know that she was just about to relive the experience she had had with her first child Nomination, who is now 18 years old, after he developed speech and hearing impediments three years after he was born.

“This happened in December 1997 when my son visited my parents in Chiweshe during the Christmas holiday. I joined him a week later on January 1, 1998 only to be told about the sad news. I was pregnant at that time with my second child Eugene, who was born in February the following year. It was later confirmed by doctors that she too was deaf and dumb,” said Tsitsi.

There was a lot of finger pointing and blame shifting, from friends and relatives, but Tsitsi and her husband, Karikoga Monde, accepted the turn of events.

Karikoga Monde said there were forces within the entire extended family that were urging him to abandon his wife, but none of those things moved him.

“I have seen a number of people that have such kind of children and given the support and education, they may grow to become useful citizens of this country. I should thank the Lord for these children because if I decide to leave my wife, what if I will have more children with this other disabilities. I love my wife and my two ‘quiet’ children,” Monde said.

A visit to the couple’s home lodging confirmed what Tsitsi said about her children. Eugene, who is now 16, smiled and hugged her father when he walked in from work. Her mother quickly signalled her to start cooking and she immediately sprang into action.

However, power went off as she was about to pour maize meal into the pot when she signalled her mother to give her matches to light a paraffin stove.

It was such a spectacle watching mother and daughter communicating in sign language and sometimes laughing at each other although Tsitsi says she and her husband have never been taught sign language.

“It was initially very difficult for us to communicate with our two children when they were still much younger. But they are the ones now teaching us sign language they are learning at school,” Tsitsi said.

Eugene is a Form 2 pupil at Emerald Hill School for the Deaf, while Nomination is a student at Danhiko Vocational Training Centre for young people with disabilities where he is doing “O” Levels.
Nomination is apparently a sporting fanatic and boasts a number of medals from Paralympic activities.

“My son is such a joy to us. He does athletics, soccer and he is also very good in Art and has excelled in technographics and hence wishes to study that subject at university level perhaps in architecture or civil engineering. I personally don’t view them as disabled children because they play and communicate with their friends in sign language and they somehow seem to get along with their peers. They sometimes laugh at us when we use wrong sign language,” said Tsitsi.

Pictures of Nomination, who was not available during the interview, demonstrated a young man who has the zeal to excel in whatever he does.
When asked what would happen if she delivered yet another child that is unresponsive, Tsitsi, who is expecting her third child, quickly pointed out that she is already used to living with her two children that live in a world of silence.

“I will gladly accept the new baby whether or not it will be deaf. There is not much that can be done to reverse reality. It’s a way of life and my husband is supportive because I have a sister who also gave birth to a deaf child, but was kicked out of her marriage. She has since remarried and has two normal children in her second marriage.

“There are people who have blamed me for this situation because my sister also delivered a deaf child. But there is no history of such defects in my extended family, both on the paternal and maternal side,” Tsitsi said.
Her husband also said there was no history of deafness on both paternal and maternal sides of his parentage.

“There are things you cannot explain, but I have so much faith in God and that is how this marriage has survived. This is something that is beyond human understanding,” Monde, a member of the Emmanuel Mudzimu Unoyera Apostolic sect, said.

History has documented the story about Helen Adams Keller, who is credited with noting that deafness cuts such people from the rest of the population.

The significant impact of hearing loss on communication and interaction with others sometimes goes unrecognised especially by healthcare practitioners and law enforcement agents.

According to Wikipedia, Keller (June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968) was the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. Keller went on to become a world-famous speaker and author. She is also remembered as an advocate for people with disabilities, amid numerous other causes.

She was a pacifist and opponent of the 28th US president Thomas Woodrow Wilson, a radical socialist and a birth control supporter.

The story of how Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, broke through the isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language, allowing the girl to blossom as she learned to communicate, has become widely known through the dramatic depictions of the play and film The Miracle Worker. Her birthday on June 27 is commemorated as Helen Keller Day in the US state of Pennyslyvania.

Keller was born with the ability to see and hear, but she contracted an illness described by doctors as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain”, when she was 19 months old, which might have been scarlet fever or meningitis.

The illness left her both deaf and blind, but she was, however, able to communicate with Martha Washington, the six-year-old daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs. By the time she was aged seven, Keller had more than 60 home signs to communicate with her family.

This is somehow what has happened to the Monde family who understand what their children through their home grown sign language symbols.

“But the children have also taught us more sign symbols they have learnt from school and sometimes laugh at us when we signal wrongly. We are just as comfortable as any other family and the only difference is that our children cannot produce any sound. We play games, dance to music, sometimes sending them into stitches of laughter,” Tsitsi said.

Coping with hearing loss is different from other disabilities in that it is an invisible handicap. The reactions or behaviours associated with hearing loss may not be apparent, and even the sight of a hearing aid doesn’t guarantee recognition of a disability.

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