Pupils practise Kenyan Sign Language

Meet the young activists fighting for Deaf rights

A bespoke project in Kenya is bringing together Deaf people from the UK and Kenya to make their voices heard. Youth volunteers Raabia, a young filmmaker from the UK, and her Kenyan counterpart, Enock, explain their project.

Being Deaf can have its challenges wherever you are in the world. In Kenya, it is often seen as a curse and Deaf children are hidden away from education and social interaction. In the UK, young Deaf people can feel a similar sense of isolation and exclusion from the hearing world.

The bespoke project taking place in Nandi, Kenya, is tackling the challenges felt by young Deaf people in the community with a focus on access to education, employment and inclusion – carried out by young Deaf volunteers from the UK and Kenya.

Why do we need to address Deaf rights in Nandi?

four volunteer standing at the front of a classroom, smiling at the camera
VSO/ Paul Wambugu

Enock (right) in the classroom with Raabia (second right), the class teacher, and other ICS volunteers, Esther and Lauren.

The stigma that surrounds Deaf people in rural Kenya can have terrible consequences affecting education and employment. This was experienced first-hand by Enock, 23, a Kenyan volunteer on the project who faced constant challenges after becoming Deaf in 2005.

"Since becoming Deaf, I’ve had many challenges. My parents thought I was under a curse and thought I would never be successful in life," said Enock. "Members of the community think Deaf people have a mental illness. When they see Deaf people signing, they think we must be mad."

When Enock’s parents found a local specialised school for Deaf children, he quickly picked up basic sign language and was finally able to begin communicating with his peers. However, after just one term he was sent home for three months when his parents could no longer afford the tuition fees.

Students Learning Kenya sign language from VSO volunteers
VSO/ Paul Wambugu

Students Learning Kenya sign language from VSO volunteers on the Deafway project at the St. Michael’s Kapkenduiywo School in Nandi, Kenya

"With the help of the community, my parents managed to raise the school fees needed so I could continue with my education. After my primary education, I joined a high school for the Deaf. However, after one term was over, the same challenge happened and I was sent home for three months. After more fundraising from my parents, I finally joined college but the same problem soon occurred," said Enock.

Having struggled to complete his education, Enock is passionate to ensure the same thing does not happen to the younger generation. He joined the International Citizen Service (ICS) project hoping to create awareness in the community about deafness, act as a role model to Deaf youth and encourage and empower them to achieve their dreams.

ICS is a UK Government funded programme providing volunteer placements to 18-25 year olds and Team Leader placements to 23-35 year olds.

"Deaf people don’t get the same experiences and opportunities as hearing people" – Raabia’s experience

two boys stood either side of a female volunteer who is holding a video camera and recording
VSO/ Paul Wambugu

Raabia shows fellow volunteers her current project.

Raabia, 25, is Enock’s UK counterpart on the project in Nandi. Despite coming from very different backgrounds, she can relate to some of the challenges faced by Enock in Kenya.

"As a Deaf child I thought it was quite difficult growing up, I faced many barriers and it’s expected that we’re stupid and won’t achieve anything," she said.

Raabia, who is a filmmaker from Greater Manchester, joined ICS not only to pass on skills to the Deaf community in Kenya but to also learn from them.

"This experience has been life-changing. I’ve learnt so many things and it’s brilliant to have both UK and Kenyans in the team, learning each other's cultures. It’s so important to use young volunteers because it can have an impact on our learning and we can pass it onto people back in the UK," said Raabia.

As an ICS team leader in Nandi, Raabia is hoping to make a documentary of her time working on the project, where she will document disability. She hopes to change worldwide perceptions and empower change.

How are they making an impact?

four people stood outside a building holding a sign that says 'my ears are my ears'
VSO/ Paul Wambugu

Students and teachers of St Michael's Kapkenduiywo primary school during the Deafway project community awareness parade

Despite Kenya’s Deaf population numbering almost 190,000, many Deaf people are not registered to receive any support. Enock and Raabia, along with their fellow ICS volunteers, are hoping to directly impact a portion of this number by linking Deaf youth in the district to employment and entrepreneurship opportunities.

For children, including Heavenlights who is six, the project has provided communication with family and friends, as well as confidence for the future. Heavenlights was diagnosed as Deaf when she was 11 months old, something that her mother has struggled with.

"People told me that my family are cursed. It is painful and it hurts. It has also been hard because the general schools here don’t teach sign language. The Deaf school is very far away so I can’t take her there and bring her back every day," said Heavenlights' mother.

With the Kenyan and UK volunteers, Heavenlights and her family are learning sign language so that when she is able to start school, she won’t be far behind and will be able to communicate with her peers.

"The volunteers taught some letters and she's starting to learn. They’re also teaching the rest of the family, we're all very willing to learn the language so we can communicate with her. My hope is that she'll get a quality education. I want her to have a good job. Whenever there is a Deaf child somewhere, Heavenlights can be a role model to them and the community."

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