A silent encounter
At Twaweza, we work to embrace inclusion, diversity and equity. But personally, I have not had much opportunity to have close encounters with people who are differently abled. I attended a meeting to represent Twaweza some time ago and during this event, I had the opportunity to engage with a lady who was hard of hearing.
The first time I saw her (let’s call her Dada) I did not even really understand that she was unable to hear. I only saw two ladies seated next to her, moving their hands and constantly turning around to face the opposite direction to the presenter. I wondered why these people felt so free to openly ignore the presenter and the presenter himself seemed to be unphased. I later found out that Dada was unable to hear and the two ladies were her translators.
I was fascinated: how were the translators able to so effortlessly translate what was being said and interpret what she said back with such ease? As luck would have it, I got the chance to sit with one of the translators over lunch. I indulged in asking questions about their translation skills, I asked whether it was hard and how long it took to master sign language – she said that there were different levels of proficiency, so the length of the study was dependent on that and she further added that, like any other skill, experience always makes you better at it. Now, I am not very good at making conversation with strangers and so the small talk petered out before I could fully satisfy my curiosity.
I think the length of our conversation was also influenced by the fact that my new acquaintance was joined by Dada herself and the other translator during lunch. I did not want to make them uncomfortable (especially Dada) with my many questions. And so we sat there and quietly finished our meals together. I with my unanswered questions burning inside me (like why the translator had still used sign language even when she spoke to me) and with their silent chatter, with only their hands moving. The two translators maintained their use of sign language throughout; I reckon they did not want to leave Dada out.
But all was not lost. I was quite early for the meeting the next day and so I got to pick where to sit. You can guess where I picked – I decided I was going to sit next to my favourite trio. For the first half of the morning, I was not able to gather much from them because I was still trying to get comfortable. I shared my workshop materials and smiled more than normal; anything just to come off as friendly as I could.
Finally, during a tea break, I got one of them alone – I guess it was easier to start off with one and I was glad that the outspoken one was the one that I encountered this time. And so I went all in – she seemed quite excited, it was as if she had just been waiting for my questions. I found out that she had not learnt sign language and interpretation from a formal institution but rather from home because she was raised by deaf parents. Her two colleagues joined us later, as they got back from the break. This time our conversation did not die out. All three of them were happy to engage with my curiosity and answer my questions, no matter how facile.
So here are the highlights of my findings for those of you who find yourselves as curious as me:
Did You Know?!
- When new names are mentioned to a deaf person for the first time, they are spelt in sign language so the person may be able to know them because there is no sign language for names.
- People with hearing difficulties have marks for every person they interact with often; these are used to refer to them instead of names. Say I have a mole on my forehead and the person decides they will use that as my mark, whenever the person wants to refer to me, they will use the sign for my identifying mark rather than spelling my name out.
- Every country has their own sign language. So for Tanzania sign language is in Kiswahili and therefore a presentation in English first has to be translated into Kiswahili and then to sign language. And two deaf people from different countries have to learn universal sign language to be able to communicate.
Now I know this may not be news to some – but I thought it was still worth sharing for those like me who would find it intriguing. And if you were still wondering why the translator spoke to me in sign language there is no mind-blowing answer but rather it was because she was so used to doing that; she tends to mostly use her hands by default even when speaking to those that are able to hear.
I am grateful for my new friends’ willingness to answer my questions no matter how trivial they might have seemed. If we want to really live the value of inclusion, such close encounters, whether silent or otherwise, are critical.
This post is written by Entesh Melaisho, Program Officer, Governance, Donor Relations and Futures Programs, Twaweza.