At a School for the Deaf in Ethiopia, Children Learn to Communicate for the First Time

In a region of southern Ethiopia with an unusually high prevalence of deafness, Holt sponsors provide the sign-language based education children need to finally express their thoughts and feelings — bringing greater hope, and happiness, to their lives. A longer version of this story appeared in Holt’s fall 2016 sponsorship magazine

Dawit signs “thank you and God bless you” to his sponsors in the U.S.
Dawit signs “thank you and God bless you” to his sponsors in the U.S.

When Dawit was 3 years old, a mysterious epidemic swept through his village in southern Ethiopia. With the nearest hospital an inaccessible 12 miles away for most families in this impoverished farming community, many parents instead cared for their children at home — hoping and praying for their recovery. But as the community mourned the loss of first one and then another and then another child, Dawit’s mother nursed and comforted her only son — and prepared to say goodbye.

“So many kids died at that time,” Dawit’s mother remembers. “The whole family expected him to die. I was prepared to bury him. He was that sick.”

Twelve years have passed since the epidemic that devastated their community. And today, Dawit is a tall, self-assured 15-year-old with a charming, crooked-toothed smile. He is a natural artist, a skilled football player and an aspiring language teacher with an interest in photography.

Dawit survived. But although he didn’t lose his life 12 years ago, he did lose something that he would never get back. His ability to hear.

The Most Clear and Pressing Needs

In 2008, Holt began serving the community where Dawit and his family live in the Kembata-Tembaro zone of southern Ethiopia — a rural region of the country where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty and 29 percent lives in extreme poverty, earning less than one dollar per day. Here, as throughout Ethiopia, years of civil war and drought have robbed many people of their livelihoods, while famine and illness have robbed many children of their parents.

Most families in rural Ethiopia are subsistence farmers and live in traditional homes like this one, made of mud and eucalyptus leaves.
Most families in rural Ethiopia are subsistence farmers and live in traditional homes like this one, made of mud and eucalyptus leaves.

Holt concentrated our program in Shinshicho, a district capital where goats and cattle still roam the unpaved roads that lead through town, few establishments have electricity or running water and donkeys are the primary mode of transportation. To begin working in Shinshicho and surrounding areas, we hired local social workers who know the language, culture and customs of the community, and sought the guidance of local government and community elders to both identify families and children in greatest need — and partner with us in developing culturally appropriate ways to empower them.

With a majority of families relying on subsistence farming for food and income, we provided livestock to help them grow their income and seek greater stability in their lives. For families without land, we equipped them with the tools and resources to start a small business. We helped build a kindergarten in the community of Wallana and matched children with Holt sponsors who also provided uniforms, books and supplies.

A doctor checks the temperature of a child at the mother and child hospital that Holt donors helped build for the people of this community.
A doctor checks the temperature of a child at the mother and child hospital that Holt donors helped build for the people of this community.

And recognizing a gaping need for improved healthcare in the region — a region with one doctor for every 100,000 people — we first renovated a government clinic and then partnered with the community to build a full-service hospital, a massive pink stone structure with a staff of over 170, including eight full-time doctors, who now see up to 200 patients per day from its location in the heart of Shinshicho.

From providing services tailored to meet the needs of individual families to investing in basic infrastructure for the entire community, Holt sponsors and donors have through the years helped to address many of the most clear and pressing needs of the people of this deeply impoverished but naturally beautiful region of Ethiopia.

 

Some of the greatest needs were not so obvious, however, when we first began working here in 2008.

“It’s unknown why there is such a high prevalence of deafness in Shinshicho,” says Gelila Yacob, child sponsorship and family strengthening program coordinator at Holt Ethiopia who serves as translator during our visit to the region in June.

Holt Ethiopia staff member Gelila Yacob with a Holt-sponsored child at Wallana Kindergarten.
Holt Ethiopia staff member Gelila Yacob with a sponsored child at Wallana Kindergarten.

Gelila is a warm and funny former sociology major who works closely with our partners in the south to ensure sponsors receive timely and quality reports on the children they support.

“Some children are born deaf,” Gelila says, “but many, like Dawit, lose their hearing later.”

No one has ever conducted a research study to determine the cause — though Holt plans to initiate one soon — and few if any of the children have ever seen a hearing specialist. One doctor suggested to Gelila that hearing loss can come from untreated ear infections. Others point to malaria or even malaria medications. And exceptionally high fever is known to cause hearing loss in children as well.

“But locals,” Gelila says, “believe it’s because of a curse that others put on you.”

A School for the Deaf

Three years ago, Holt began partnering with the Yesus Mena School for the Deaf — a school started in 2010 by a retired government official named Abebe Abura who is also the former director of a deaf school in Addis Ababa. When the school first opened, not even Abura knew the extent of the need for sign language-based education in Shinshicho. On the first day, the school had space for 50 students. To everyone’s surprise, over 200 showed up.

On the first day of class, over 200 students showed up at Yesus Mena Deaf School.
Many of the first students at Yesus Mena were teenagers who had never been taught sign language.

Dawit was among the first students to walk through the doors of the then two room, mud-walled schoolhouse that was donated by local officials. He was 9 years old.

“I was shocked and angry when I learned that my son wasn’t able to hear,” says Dawit’s mom, a woman with high cheekbones like her son and an upper lip that disappears into an amused expression when she smiles. Although relieved and grateful that he survived his illness, she was devastated when she saw her 3-year-old son no longer trying to speak or responding when she called him.

But perhaps no one was more upset than Dawit, who for six years communicated with his family by pointing and gesturing only.

“My family didn’t understand me,” Dawit signs to his teacher when we interview him outside his classroom at Yesus Mena. “Since they couldn’t understand me before, they only gave me orders — to keep cattle, to do so many household activities. That experience made me angry because they couldn’t understand my feelings.”

 

For Dawit and many of his fellow students, the opening of this school presented their first opportunity to communicate complex thoughts and emotions. To say I’m hungry or I love you, I’m sorry or I’m in pain.

Dawit signs with his mom.
Dawit signs with his mom, who attended weekend classes at Yesus Mena to learn how to communicate with her son.

“Previously, the kids were so angry because no one would understand their feelings. They tended to be mad and aggressive,” says Gelila, who has come to know the students well in her four years with Holt Ethiopia. “Many are teenagers now, so they went their whole childhood unable to communicate. The bigger ones are more angry because they kept their feelings inside for such a long period of time.”

Meaza is 14 years old and in grade 4 at Yesus Mena. On the day we meet her, she wears a purple-striped headband over tight braids and a turquoise sweater under the navy blue button-down shirt that’s part of the uniform her sponsor provides. Like Dawit, Meaza had never attended a school before Yesus Mena opened in 2010, when she was 8 years old.

“I used to be so angry I would cry, even in the classroom,” Meaza shares with us as she stands outside her classroom. “I used to be angry because people didn’t understand me.” Meaza emphatically shakes her head, purses her lips into a frown and firmly shakes her finger when her answer to a question is ‘no’ — exaggerated expressions that give a glimpse of how hard she’s had to work to nonverbally communicate her thoughts and feelings.

“I used to be so angry I would cry, even in the classroom,” Meaza shares with us as she stands outside her classroom. “I used to be angry because people didn’t understand me.”
“I used to be so angry I would cry, even in the classroom,” Meaza shares with us as she stands outside her classroom. “I used to be angry because people didn’t understand me.”

Meaza still doesn’t understand everything, and her teacher shares that she struggles a bit in school. Meaza fell behind her peers when her parents moved to a neighboring town far from Yesus Mena — causing her to drop out for a year. Day laborers in a sugar plantation, her parents — like most parents in this community — could not afford to send Meaza to school without the support of sponsors. Meaza now lives with her relatives closer to town, but like many of her classmates, she walks over two hours to get to school each day — a sacrifice she makes, she says, because she wants to continue learning.

“I’m not angry anymore,” Meaza signs to her teacher, with a smile that seems to come naturally. Meaza talks of all the friends she has made, how they enjoy studying together and braiding each other’s hair. “I’m so happy,” she says, “now that I am able to communicate.”

Both Meaza and Dawit were fortunate to be among the first class of students at the first school ever to offer sign language-based education in Shinshicho.

 Read the full story as it appeared in Holt’s sponsored magazine here!

Not yet a sponsor? Help a child in Ethiopia or another country receive the education they need to reach their full potential in life. Visit holtinternational.org/sponsorship to learn about a child who needs a sponsor now!

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