Growing up, I was always intrigued by Sign Language.
Whenever I watched news on television, my focus would be on that interpreter in the corner of the screen.
I always wondered myself how they do it. So last year, I was thrown into the deep end when the executive director of Botswana Association of the Deaf (BODA), Shirley Keoagile invited me to cover the inaugural Africa Deaf Athletics Championship at the Kasirani Stadium in Kenya.
The competition attracted 12 countries, with Botswana amongst the competitors. I was very excited about the opportunity, but one thing stood out; how was I going to communicate with the deaf community? The feeling sent a chill down my spine.
I put aside that feeling and told myself that I would find a way. We jetted off to Kenya on September 15.
Upon arrival in Kasirani I was amongst hundreds of deaf people. They were all friendly to me but when it came to communicating, I had to reach for my phone and type whatever I want to say.
Fortunately, Team Botswana coaches, Edward Mbengwa and Maikano Maswabi could verbalise and so in most instances they assisted me. It has been a year now since that trip but it remains crystal clear in my mind because it changed my life for the best. It dawned on me that I need to take a stand against this. It was time for me to learn Sign Language.
During my stay in Kasarani I came across Ashura Michael, a hearing impaired human rights and gender activist. She proved to me that deaf people could go very far in life. Ashura is a trailblazer in her own right.
Earlier this year she added another cap to her hat when she was elected speaker of the East African Youth Assembly, a group of 100 young people drawn from across the region. Kenya has more than 600,000 deaf people.
I decided to approach Keoagile and request to sign up for the course. In February, I enrolled and it has been an exciting journey thus far.
During my interaction with deaf people, at first it was not easy to communicate with them online. I now understand that the wording can be quite different from hearing people. Deaf people do not ‘waste’ words communicating. They like to get to the point. Words like ‘is’ are
Well, at the beginning it was very tough and after the lesson I was always tired. My fingers were killing me. My problem was that I was stiff when signing. My teacher, Tshenolo Lesonya was very patient with me.
I was struggling to remember the signs that I was taught a few minutes ago. Simple words like ‘home, why, where, when, they, them, love, like and myself’. Lesonya would go the extra mile and try to make sounds so that I understand. Lesonya is a senior sign language instructor and part of the media production team.
A few weeks ago, Edwin Mabote took over my class. Like I said, deaf people are intelligent. BODA has a strong media team that has been producing COVID-19 prevention messages and other day-to-day information. Mabote is experienced in ICT and Sign Language training. He is also working on the Deaf News production with media team. Disoso Seloma heads the media team. The team also produces videos on signs for words that we use in our daily lives.
Speaking people have signs that they use all the time, but deaf people do not understand them. I have realised that deaf people do not want to be patronised or to be treated differently from speaking people.
My wife’s younger sister (Keolebogile Masanako) is also deaf. She has always had a soft spot for me, but communication always stood in our way.
So as it stands, I am still struggling to sign quickly and I guess soon I will be perfect. The important thing is that I understand the language and that is what is important. Deaf people are talented and amazing.
They get excited when a speaking person learns their language and they do everything in their power to make sure that happens.
As a journalist, it was important for me to learn Sign Language because it would make my job easy when doing interviews with deaf athletes.
However, resources cripple the hard work that BODA is doing in promoting Sign Language and empowering the Deaf Community. Just like any other NGO, sponsors have pulled out and government has reduced the annual grant. Attracting potential partnerships is a headache.