When adoptive mom Cindy Lamb visits with students at the Yesus Mena Deaf School in Ethiopia, her fluency in sign language helps her communicate. But it’s another language that creates the most soulful connection.
This past October, my husband, Steve, and I had the rare privilege of participating in the perfect intersection of a lifetime of interests and passions when we traveled to Ethiopia on a medical mission trip with Holt. Holt helped build and still supports Shinshicho Primary Hospital and also supports Yesus Mena Deaf School in the same town. Steve is a family practice physician and I am an RN with a graduate degree in deaf education. Twenty-two years ago, we adopted a 4-year-old daughter through Holt who is deaf. So, when we were asked to participate in a medical mission trip to Shinshicho with an opportunity to also be involved with the deaf school, we were immediately determined to be a part of the adventure.
While the whole trip was filled with deeply affecting experiences, I’d like to use my personal experience as a teacher of deaf and hard-of-hearing students — and as a mother of a daughter who is deaf — to give you some insights into what I learned about the life-sustaining work Holt is helping to support at Yesus Mena Deaf School.
In most places in the developing world, people who are deaf have never been to school and are not considered able to participate in any educational opportunities. They are not only illiterate, but have essentially no means of communication other than natural gestures to convey their immediate wants and needs. They have no access to information and live as marginalized and uneducated individuals unable to participate in society and living in sustained poverty. The Yesus Mena Deaf School is one of few deaf schools in Ethiopia that is trying to change that reality.
While I was excited to visit the school, I had a number of questions. First and foremost, I wondered if I would be able to communicate with anybody there. Formal education of the deaf in Ethiopia is actually quite recent. It is reported to have been introduced by American missionaries in the 1970s. Because of this fact, Ethiopian Sign Language is based on American Sign Language. At Yesus Mena, I was able to understand about 60% of the signs they were using and was able to hold basic conversations with several of the staff members as well as sign with the students in the classrooms.
During these conversations and my two days there, I learned so many important things about Yesus Mena. I learned that 11 staff members taught the nearly 600 students in attendance at this school. I watched and learned as students filed by to receive a hot nutritious lunch that sponsors provide every day for each one of these 600 students — no small undertaking. I learned that some students walked as many as two hours one way, five days a week, to be able to attend here. I learned that the government of Ethiopia endorses a model of inclusion for students with any type of disability, and to that end, not all of the students at Yesus Mena are deaf or hard of hearing. For deaf children, inclusion means teaching sign language to students who can hear, which is vitally important as it provides deaf children with peers who they can communicate with in the community.
The community is very supportive and in fact, Yesus Mena is a sought-after school in this area due to its superior education. I learned this was a new school that was recently expanded to accommodate a growing student enrollment number. There were eight classrooms in two buildings. Students were in the first through seventh grades. The seventh grade was added this year and next year, they are planning to add the eighth grade. The ages of the students did not strictly correspond to their grade level, and I observed that a number of older students were in the earlier grades. I learned this was because they had not had the opportunity to go to school before and were placed accordingly.
There was even a student that was quite a bit older in one of the classrooms. I learned he was the father of one of the students, coming to school with his son in order to learn sign language and communicate better with his child. I was surprised to see that the first grade classroom held 90 students, three to a desk. Even with so many students to a class, all of the children were bright-eyed and engaged in learning.
Much of the instruction and learning seemed to be memorization. Students did not appear to have textbooks but would write their lessons in a composition book for further study. We heard lots of total class reciting/signing memory work. I learned that there were at least four languages being used at the school. All the classes were being taught by a teacher standing at the chalkboard signing in Ethiopian Sign Language while simultaneously speaking Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. In addition, everything on the board was written in Amharic and in English. However, the students that had oral speech would speak to each other in the local dialect. With this confusing plurality of languages both written and spoken/signed, basic memorization seemed more understandable as an educational standard.
In addition to all that Holt does to support these students and this community, there were a number of ways they could help if additional resources were available. For instance, support could go to help additional teachers of the deaf. I confess I did wince at the number of students in each classroom. (Ninety first graders anyone?!) Also on my list is a subsidy for transportation. There is transportation available, but it is beyond the means of many of these students — including those who are walking two hours to school and two hours home each day. Clearly, these students and parents are very dedicated to receiving this education.
While I was at the school, I did not see any students with hearing aids or amplification of any kind. The school is in the process of accessing the hearing level of each student by way of audiometric equipment. Once identified, those students that are hard of hearing will need hearing aids to reach their full potential. Help with hearing aids can make all the difference to those students.
Despite our communication differences, my most powerful connection and lasting impression was of being invited into each classroom. The students were eager to interact. At one point, they sang a song to me using Ethiopian sign language and their local dialect. In turn, I invited them to sing the “ABC” song with me in American sign language and in English. They enjoyed it so much that they insisted we sing it again. I was able to ask several students their name. With a huge smile, each one carefully finger spelled an answer. What I will forever carry in my heart is walking up to each student, touching each hand, smiling into each one’s eyes, and connecting with each soul. I learned that smiles are a language we all share.
Cindy Lamb | Oroville, WA