Inside a church of the deaf

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Today is church day, and the church building - really a garage in somebody's home is full of young people.

They are dressed in their Sunday best as  most mainstream Christians do when they go to church. A few of them appear to be well to do, if the vehicles at the parking lot are anything to go by.

As you enter a good-to-behold young woman brings a chair to you, shakes your hand and indicates for you to sit. As you take your seat, you realise that this is a quiet church.

You do not hear the shout of hallelujah! or Amen! or Praise God!  The only sound is a throaty noise here and there that is accompanied by a swift movement of the hands every time a lean good looking young man at the pew moves his. Just that. The throaty noises, amazing smiles and the hand movements. The beautiful young man at the pew moves his hands again and as one, the congregation stands up and as if they have memorised their hands movement, move the hands as one.... they touch their shoulders, their chests, and their fingers weave the air in precisely the same fashion, as their young faces light up in joy unspeakable.

WELCOME. You have just entered DEAF church! All the young people here, save for one young woman, who wears an earpiece, are stone deaf. Even the young woman is so hard of hearing that she has to read your lips to make out what you are saying. The young people meet here every Sunday to worship together. Unless you speak sign language, in this church you are the one with disability.  For everyone can speak to and understand each other, except you.  On this particular Sunday, we sit hunched at the back of the church, embarrassment getting the best of us, as we cannot follow a single word that is being said here. The church has been made aware that the two fellows sinking into their chairs at the back are reporters from Mmegi - and they have possibly been advised to behave and be nice to us, but we have no way of knowing. 

This Sunday's reading is from Genesis chapter Three verses 3 through 24. Everyone flips his or her Bibles to the chapter and verse. A pleasant young man helps us find the chapter and points to the verses. A young woman springs up, goes to the front and reads fluently in SIGN Language! Then the church stands up and they all sing.

NO SOUND. Just the hand signs, the throaty noises and a hissing sound much like you would make if you tried to vocalise a string of Ss. As their hands simultaneously work out a furious affair in the air I am somehow able to tell that they are singing "Yes Jesus Loves me"!  There is more 'singing' and the young tall preacher takes charge at the pew again. More singing. Then as the preacher weaves his hands in the air, the kind young man seated next to us quickly goes to the podium. He closes his eyes and starts praying.

The rest of the church look at him, nodding in agreement, in humble reverence to the creator. It is a long prayer and midway through the prayer I can only infer that the prayer is based on the preaching from the Bible book of Genesis chapter three. It is really a plea to God to keep us from temptation and falling from grace. Then as the young man finishes praying, the church disperses. The young lady with some speaking ability tells us that they are breaking for a few minutes and will go back in after 15 minutes.

She also tells us that her name is Kemmonye and that she is a student at Naledi Secondary School. The preacher, who introduces himself (by writing his name on my notebook) as Tshenolo Lesonya joins us. This church at Gaborone's Block Nine location is only a satellite of a bigger church in Ramotswa. Because there is a good number of deaf young people in Gaborone, who attend the Deaf Baptist Church, a decision was made that they congregate at this house.  The owner of the house is a teacher of deaf people and on this day, is attending church in Ramotswa. He gives her name as Mimi and her housekeeper helpfully gives us her cellphone number. We call her and inform her that we are on the way to the bigger church in Ramotswa.  We will need to ask one of the church members to accompany us, she says, as the place may not be easy to locate. The young man who sat next to us during the service offers to come along.

The church is bigger than the Gaborone church. Even the building is very much like most Baptist church buildings. I decide by rough estimation that the church can accommodate up to 200 people. On this day a number slightly bigger than the one in Gaborone has attended.

The church disperses soon after we arrive and Mimi,  who gives her surname as Dykes informs the congregants that we are journalists and interested in doing a story about the church. They all decide to stay as they take turns to shake our hands. Mimi stands by and now and then interprets for us as a member says something nice to us.

She is the first missionary for the deaf in Botswana and has been working with deaf people here since 1996. In fact most of the deaf young people we met on this day are her students.

The pastor at this church is Semakaleng Moikotlhai. He is full time and deaf. And so is his wife Emelang. His is a worthy labour of counselling, encouraging the deaf and indeed preaching. The Moikotlhais married nearly 10 years ago and have two children - eight-year-old Mimi, who is named after the Dykes woman, and two-year old Oarabile.

The church here, he says is for the deaf. While sessions are held during the week for children without hearing problems, Sundays are reserved for the deaf. Children without hearing problems still are welcome, but meet in a separate room inside the church.

"You could call it the Deaf Church with a hearing ministry," chips in Mimi Dykes the interpreter.

"We initially met at the Centre for the deaf. We started meeting there in 1996 and for many years we were building this church. We moved here in 2005," says pastor Moikotlhai. 1996 was the same year that 18, almost 19 year-old Mimi Dykes arrived to do her missionary work among the deaf in Ramotswa. She started preaching to them, and Moikotlhai became one of her first converts.

"It was not easy. Here I was trying to talk to these people about an altogether new concept and a God they were hearing about for the first time," says Dykes

Moikotlhai's conversion marked the beginning of a more intensified outreach programme by these faithful. "We would walk for many kilometres here in Ramotswa and also in Mochudi, ministering to people and handing out tracts," says Moikotlhai.

During those trips, even as it is happening today, he met many people who simply could not fathom the mystery of a deaf preacher.  He ministered to them anyway.

Moikotlhai says that it is important for deaf people to come to a church like his. Not only are they able to socialise with other deaf people: they also get a sense of being 'family.' It is also a way of helping the deaf worship as they are often left out in hearing churches.

He believes the reason why they are often left out in hearing churches is because no one thinks about them, or if they do, they simply do not understand sign language to ensure that the deaf are taken on board. Unfortunately this is the same attitude playing itself out just about everywhere.

"We get invited by my daughter's school for the Parents and Teachers' meeting, and there is no one to tell us what is being said.

Lately we have been taking our daughter along with us to interpret for us," he says. Little Mimi is just a blessing.

When her mother conceived her, the couple was excited and told their families that they were expecting a baby.

But the families were not happy for them, as they believed that they would have a deaf child.

"The baby was born and could hear. And when I told them that the child could hear they wanted to take the baby, as they believed that she would not be able to speak. But you can see now my daughter speaks three languages," he says proudly as he signs for his little girl to come over. Little Mimi will be doing standard three in January. She tells us that she speaks Sign language, English and Setswana. All of them fluently.

"It is sad that people generally want to believe that deaf people are subhuman or something. When people see me with my daughter, they usually think that she is the deaf one as they see her signing to me. You can almost always see the look of incredulity on their faces when they realise that I am the one who is deaf. For many of them, a deaf woman cannot have and bring up a child," chips in Mrs Moikotlhai.

She believes that it is time government and the rest of the population took deaf people seriously.

"We have TV, but all we are seeing are pictures. What a relief it is those days that we see an interpreter!" she says.

Lack of interpretation for the deaf is causing havoc among the deaf community says pastor Moikotlhai. "Today we are grappling with high incidents of drunkenness among the deaf community. Many of them see people drinking on TV or elsewhere and there is no one to tell them that it is wrong to be drunk, so they think it is the way things should be done," he says.

Deaf education, he says should be emphasised. And authorities need to start paying attention to deaf people.

"Today we are saying we have this church. We are trying to get children to be on the straight. The only assistance we are getting is from the church and we have not had a single visit from government officers, although they know about our work. This shows the attitude that people have towards the deaf," he says. He wishes people, including government officers could come and learn Sign language.

"We offer to teach Sign language as that will ensure that we have interpreters in various sectors," he says.

Perhaps the interpreters will also become instrumental in helping align Deaf education and helping the deaf become productive members of their communities.

"As it is right now children are passed on to secondary school even when they did not do well at primary school. It is worse with deaf children.

Many times we see children who can't even write their name passing on to secondary school. An appropriate system needs to be devised for these children," adds Dykes. Until then, many of the deaf will remain at the periphery of human development and will continue to be stigmatised.

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