During the second service at Sinza Roman Catholic church on the Sunday of 20th October, a young lady who came in a bit late caught my attention.
There was nothing particular about her except for the fact that she entered while service was on going. It’s common for people to turn when someone enters while everybody else is seated, right?
Of course she was young, good looking and was wearing a dress that I thought was a bit fancy for church. This did not surprise me given her age. My eyes followed her as she proceeded to the front row seats. The moment she settled in one of the pews, a young man stood next to her and appeared to be whispering something in her ear (so I thought). “Is he talking to her about her dress? I wondered, only to realize he was interpreting to the young lady, what the priest was saying, in sign language.
This drew my attention even further. A sign language interpreter? I was so impressed. This was a new development as we never used to have such service in church before.
My attention was now divided between the priest giving the homily and the sign language interpreter. My interest was in following the meaning of what the priest said and how it’s interpreted in sign language. At some point, the priest asked the interpreter to stand in front, in case there were more congregants who needed his service.
I must admit I stared at the interpreter throughout the service. While I contemplated on his presence in church, my mind travelled a few years back, when we ran a story of a church for the deaf in Buguruni, Dar es Salaam.
The majority of the congregation at Immanuel Deaf Church left their previous churches because of the lack of sign language interpreting services. So, did this young lady at Sinza church hire her own interpreter? I wondered.
To satisfy my curiosity, I requested an interview with her through her interpreter, Gabriel Mhemera.
Grace Mtui,26, is an accounting diploma holder and the second born in a family of five children.
After she completed secondary education at St Angela Mumias school for the deaf in Kenya in 2014, Grace joined Sebastian Kolowa University College (Sekuco) in Tanga, for a special education teaching diploma. Gabriel went to the same college. Unfortunately, the teaching diploma was nullified that year and Grace left the college with a certificate in IT in 2016.
Grace and Gabriel bumped into each other sometime this year and Gabriel wanted to know why he had not seen her in church. She told him lack of sign language interpreting service at the church was the problem. Having learnt sign language, Gabriel offered to help her if she was interested.
“Grace had already raised the matter with the parish priest who promised to find her an interpreter. When she met Gabriel, the two approached the priest, who allowed Gabriel to be interpreting in church,” says Grace’s mother, Margareth Bilinga, who is a lecturer at Dar es Salaam University College of Education.
Margareth says her daughter used to depend on her siblings to understand what was said in church. “I thank Fr Cuthbert Maganga for allowing deaf interpreting service at the church. Two of Grace’s friends, who are also deaf are attending church at Sinza, now that there is a sign language interpreter.”
Margareth wishes Dar es Salaam archdiocese could identify one church to cater for the needs of deaf persons. She believes there are many deaf believers who are left out because of the lack of sign language interpreters in their churches.
In her search for a church where she would not be left out during mass, Grace once tried the church of the deaf in Buguruni and another church in Mbezi, a trend that worried her mother. Margareth was relieved when Gabriel entered into the picture.
Arnold Mwasumbi, chairman of Sinza parish laity council, says the parish had never thought of providing such service before as they were yet to establish the need.
However, Mwasumbi says he learnt of the presence of two deaf persons at the church sometime last year, who he is not sure still go to the church. He thinks they were visitors and says; “we were not sure how to help them. We never thought about sign language interpreting.”
Apart from church, Grace, who obtained a Diploma in Accounts from Teofilo Kisanje University this year, has been experiencing communication problems in many other areas.
Having studied in both Swahili and English speaking countries, her sign language is a mixture of both Swahili and English languages, which some people find confusing.
During the interview for example, the interpreter would from time to time crosscheck with Grace’s friend, Geoffrey Nyansika, who is also deaf and was present during the interview, to understand some of the signs Grace was using.
At university in the beginning, some lecturers were not aware Grace was deaf and would therefore give lectures as if everyone could hear. They later found ways of helping her when they found out she was deaf. They used to give her notes to read in advance.
When Grace was in Kenya for her secondary school studies, she at some point contemplated leaving school because of the language barrier. Kenya’s sign language was a challenge for her as she communicated in Swahili sign language.
“It was difficult for me in the beginning because the sign language used in Kenya was different from the one that I was used to.”
She thanks her mother for encouraging her to continue with school in Kenya despite the language challenge.
When communicating with people who don’t understand sign language, Grace either scribbles on paper or types on her phone to communicate. Communication with family members is not a problem as they naturally have their own way of doing it. “We have localised our own sign language. In the beginning, we used to write things down to understand each other but since Grace did not like this, she taught us sign language. It was hard in the beginning but we later mastered it,” said Perfect Mtui, Grace’s younger brother, after which Grace chipped in. “I used to get angry in the beginning because every time I returned home from school, everyone would have forgotten what I taught them before I left,” Grace recalls with a chuckle.
Long education journey
Today Grace makes sure she goes out with an interpreter, especially when attending big events like parties. Margareth is happy that her daughter is independent and goes everywhere on her own.
“My only worry is her safety on the road since she can’t hear car sounds. I always tell her to be careful every time she goes out.” She is proud that despite her hearing challenge, her daughter is a hustler. “I thank God she is tolerant. She’s been in school for a long time and would at times consider dropping out but I always encouraged her to soldier on. I thank God she is focused.”
19 years in school is not a joke.Grace spent ten years in primary school because deaf students had to spend two years in Standard One, one year in Standard Two, two years in Standard Three, one in Standard Four, two in Standard Five and one in Standard Six and seven respectively.
She pursued her secondary school education for five years in Kenya, spent a year at Sekuco and three years at Teophilo Kisanje University.
“I thank God she did not give up. Like any other ambitious young person, Grace is always hunting for opportunities, which saw her represent the country at Miss and Mr Deaf International in Russia in July,” says her mother.
Grace and a friend, Winfrida Bryson were the first Tanzanians to participate in the contest, which took place in St Petersburg, Russia. The two found out about the contest on Facebook and decided to give it a try.
The contest seeks to empower, enhance and support the community of deaf women and men. It provides a platform for contestants to demonstrate their unique talents, intellect, beauty and overall personal humanitarian goals.
Grace was among the top ten in the beauty pageant while Winfrida won in the fashion show category. Their trip was sponsored by both parents and government.
Grace says the trip opened up a new world to her and thanks government and her parents for their support. She did not face any communication challenges in Russia as the language of communication was American sign language, which she learnt in Kenya.
Grace, who plans to pursue a degree in accountancy is thankful for having supportive parents and a loving family. “Some parents hide children with disability, denying them a chance to go to school. Parents should take deaf children to school and continue supporting them even if they fail in exams. I thank my parents for making sure I went to school despite the challenges.”
Her dream is starting an organisation to empower people with hearing loss, so they can overcome life challenges and ensure they go to school.
“My organisation will also teach parents sign language, to make communication with their children easy.” She calls upon government to help deaf persons overcome challenges resulting from their disability.