Thursday, September 23, 2010

Proudly Deaf

“In America, are there pastors or preachers that makes promises and try to cure Deaf people?” Josephine asked with a dispirited air around her.  I was standing outside of my house talking with her and a couple of other students during our lunch break during the beginning of the last term. 

“Unfortunately, yes.” I replied, uneasy of the direction this conversation would probably be heading into – religion is always a sticky area, especially here in Kenya, where they claim that no atheists exist – and knowing that I would hear yet another heartbreaking story.

“I saw one of those pastors during the holiday.” Josephine began half-heartedly.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Mum took me to this church, not our regular Sunday church, and I had no idea what was happening.  All of sudden mum pushed me forward, and this pastor just grabbed my head and began shaking it.  I was scared and didn’t know what was happening.”

“That’s terrible!  Was that for your Deafness?”  I exclaimed. 

“Yeah.  I asked mum about what happened, and why it did – and she told me that she was hoping to be able to make me hear.” Josephine said. 

“That’s just wrong.” I said. 

“Do Deaf Americans have similar problems?” Monica asked. 

“Yeah.  We don’t encounter these as often as you do here in Kenya, like I just heard about this pastor coming to Kilifi last weekend saying the same thing, but we do have a few pastors in the United States who said they could cure Deafness.  It’s always hard – it’s not easy being told that something that you are is not good enough.  It just sucks.”  I replied.

This statement has been drilled in my kids time and time again, and really, not only in my kids, but in my friends and even myself as a Deaf person - I have encountered numerous people in the past, and will encounter quite a few more in the future that had and will have doubts of my capacity as a Deaf person.  Many of these people probably don’t realize they actually do this themselves, for example, not taking the time to communicate clearly with the Deaf person (essentially making them feel that they’re not worth the time or energy), looking at the hearing person for a response, rather than the more qualified Deaf person, and so on. 

Needless to say all this drives me absolutely batshit.

It especially drives me even more batshit when my students buy into that mentality and lack of self-confidence.  I know that this change will not happen overnight, but I do what I can to try and talk up Deaf people – trying to make my kids more confident in themselves as individuals, and especially as proud Deaf individuals. 

“Oh, the hearing students are better at this than me …”

“The hearing school plays football better than we do …”

“The exams for the hearing schools are tougher …”

I’ve heard these from my students many times over the course of last five terms, and probably will hear more of that over my last term.  Every time someone say something like that, I refute with an example, I talk about the time I borrowed the exam from the neighborhood secondary school for English, and compared to what I was doing myself – that some parts of my exam was tougher.  I talk about other Deaf Kenyans who have hearing family, brothers and sisters, and cousins that did not pass KCPE (the entrance exam into secondary school) while the Deaf individuals passed.  I reminded my boys of that one huge football match when they played a local all boys’ school and just absolutely killed them. 

“Sure, Deaf people have challenges in their lives, but so do everyone else.” I would say. 

Time and time again, I work hard to instill Deaf pride in my students, and I know I’m fighting the overwhelming tide, but it’s just something that I need to do as a Deaf person, to not only keep myself sane and feeling good about who I am, but also to hopefully see my kids grow up to become confident adults. 

One evening close to the end of last term, after an especially bad day of non-communicativeness from teachers at my school, and a few exchanges of emails with Peace Corps that left a bad taste in my mouth, I walked around my school checking up on my kids to see how they were doing with their homework assignment and studying for the upcoming exams, we started a conversation about a couple of other teachers and how uncomfortable they felt in approaching them for something they need or whatever because the teachers would not communicate clearly with them.

“So what does that say about me? That I’m an easy target?  That explains why you all ask me all these weird questions and for whatever you need!” I asked with a laugh.

“Yeah, you’re easy!” Mercy said, slapping Shukurani’s hand, to laughter from the table I was talking with.

“Don’t worry, we still respect you as a teacher.” Alii added with a smile, worried that I was offended. 

From a table across the room, Lemmy stood up and signed, “Of course you’re easy!  You’re Deaf, we’re Deaf, and we love you!”

The entire room erupted with laughter, as Lemmy was rarely that expressive.  After some more joking and correction of homework, discussing the focus of the exams with my students, I suddenly found myself in a much better mood. 

Maybe some of the things I’ve been saying are starting to sink in.

Just maybe.  

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Shark Alley

Photo taken by Mary - Ginnie and I saw the swish of this shark as she jumped for the bait.

This shark swam right in the front of our faces - maybe only a foot away - what a majestic and amazing creature!

Glee and smiles was all over our faces - I'm the one on the right.

This experience is one of the coolest things I've ever done, sharing a place right up there on the top with some of my most mind blowing experiences.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Penguins, whales, and sharks, oh my!

[9th attempt of writing of the South Africa trip blog entry]

Hugging my travel mates, my partners in crime, the two people that I would spend the next ten days traveling across the southernmost country of the Africa continent, I didn’t know what I was into for as I sat down and started to chatter excitedly with them.  Sipping my cappuccino, we talked about the final few details and took a quick look over in the guidebook I had bought when I was in the States over the holidays. 

After the usual Nairobi taxi debacle, we finally got to the airport, and then on the plane.  I thought, it’s finally here!  The trip I’ve been thinking about for almost a year and half as a gift to myself for turning 30, been planning for the past few months, and it’s finally here.  I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed – I wasn’t, not in the slightest. 

Is a travel tale truly a good tale if they don’t have a couple of bad taxicab drivers tossed in? We finally got to Soweto after a three hour cab ride – with the cab driver complaining that guidebooks should have not only the address of the hostel, but directions there – and there, in Soweto, I knew I got lucky with Mary and Ginnie – our first major inside joke began there. 

We continued from Johannesburg to Capetown on the bus, after a few mishaps with the train – apparently they lost the engine – we were not quite sure what happened, but that was when I realized that we were truly Peace Corps Volunteers when we just shrugged and tried to figure out what to do … and watched a group of travelers complaining and arguing with the train staff. 

Capetown was amazingly beautiful; our exhausted bodies and minds absorbed the positive vibes from the town.  We stayed at a hostel with energetic and welcoming managers – they welcomed us with quite a few shots of whiskey and tequila.  Table Mountain and the District Six museum were on our itinerary and we explored, ate, drank, and enjoyed Capetown to the fullest. 

Picking up the tiny white car, Mary and I was excited to drive yet again, and especially on the wrong side of the road … we drove to Cape of Good Hope and hiked up to the lighthouse being knocked speechless by the beauty of the landscapes and the ocean.  It was good to see the Atlantic again – it was almost two years since I was last in that ocean.  Continuing on to our next port of call, Stellenbosch, we stopped by and saw the African penguins, where we snapped and gawked to our hearts content, glad to have a break from worrying about being culturally appropriate and being able to be truly tourists.

Tasting wines at five different wineries, and a splurge on a cheese platter was next on our program, as we enjoyed the scenery of vineyards after vineyards, excellent food, excellent conversations – the trip was halfway over, and I was not sick of my friends, nor of their chatter – we had something good going right there.

After Stellenbosch, we headed to Hermanus. 

Hermanus provided to be a nice and relaxing place, a nice contrast to the Capetown vibe.  We watched quite a few whales pass the cliffs – Hermanus was one of the few places in the world that you could just stand on a cliff and watch whales pass by.  It was a perfect place to rest after the high of Capetown, the gluttony of Stellenbosch, and I could feel my mind wandering, and my shoulders relaxing. 

The next day I posed for an Ellis Island portrait on the boat, rocking up and down on swells, in the middle of the driving rain gripping the steel railing with a pained expression, wind spent hair, and a scarf tied around my head, I looked for sharks in the water – and saw my first few Great White Sharks – excitement started to build as I knew I was about to jump into the cage and watch them in their world.  The waves increased and at the point before Ginnie and I was about to jump into the steel cage, the skipper informed us that we had only thirty minutes before we had to head into shore.  Jumping in the mind-numbing cold water, Ginnie and I gripped the steel cage, which was rocking with each wave, waiting for the sighting of the shark – I saw the first swish of the tail of a shark, and I couldn’t help my huge grin.  As the skipper command us to duck down again, I went under yet again, and saw this majestic creature saunter around the cage, completely in control, in its element.  After a couple more ducks and twenty more mind-numbing minutes, we had to go back to shore, but not without huge grins and amazement on our faces. 

After the longest hot shower of the year, I finally warmed up, and then we headed to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of the African continent.  I stood there, knowing that this was one of the last days of our trip, looking at the Indian Ocean, the ocean of my current home, and the Atlantic Ocean, the ocean I had swum in numerous times throughout my childhood and adulthood, with a relaxed grin plastered on my face. 

Looking back, I continue to think of moments of the trip that made me smile – the jokes, the chatter, the friendships - I couldn’t have asked for better friends to travel with, a better place to visit, nor a better way to spend my last break and vacation of my service.  

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Why I am doing what I am doing ...

My inspiration - and my new favorite picture of the lovely Olivia! 

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Inspiration is Contagious

Outside one window, there was a fistfight going on between two matatu conductors, outside the opposite window, hawkers were hawking every type of DVDs imaginable, and I knew, with these sights, now that we were in Nairobi. My students, all six of ‘em were standing up trying to absorb every sight – it was the first time that some of them had seen Nairobi.

“When we get off – we’ll need to rush to the shuttle bus to the camp, so just try to follow me – I’ll make sure that everyone’s still with me.” I said, when the bus started to slow down and reach the disembarking location. We got off, started filing down the street, and I looked back, seeing the boy from the dry and desert-like Hola with his mouth wide open in amazement, taking in every sight he could – I realized – he had never seen buildings so tall in real life. Content that everyone was still following me, I continue down the street, waiting for everyone to gather up before I crossed the street – asking everyone if they were all right, shining eyes and smiles were all the answer they could muster, and all the answer I needed.

After a few more turns and twists, we got to the Embassy bombing site, the pre-arranged meet site with the rest of the students and a few of the staff of Global Reach Out. The bus had just barely enough room for the students, and they jumped into the bus, ready for their week long Kenya Youth Leadership Camp.

Greeting Norma and Allen, we caught up, talked about complications and expectations of what was coming up over the following week – it made me all that more excited about what my students will learn and the people they would meet, get to know, and hopefully look up to as future leaders of the Deaf community in Kenya. The excitement is regardless of the long trip from the Coast – every time I travel on that bus to Nairobi, it gets longer and longer, and more and more painful … and the fact that the school that the camp was held at have been putting up barriers and problems left and right for the staff of GRO.

Greeting a few old friends from last year’s KYLC, and from various other settings, I hugged some Kenyan delegates and introduced myself to the Americans of whom were all in college (making me realize that it was almost ten years since I graduated from Gallaudet – I’m getting old!). My realizations of how much older I was – was all swept away when one of the American delegates asked me if I was a teacher or a student. With a few chuckles, I replied, that indeed, yes, I was a teacher. Continuing into the dining hall, I put down my bag, and started to take a gaze around and the dining hall, watching the hands fly everywhere excitedly.

It is always an amazing feeling for me to be in an all-Deaf environment even if I had been in this environment numerous times, where everyone, except for some of the school’s staff, was Deaf. It was a breather and a relief for me, as the recent term, for various reasons, was one of my toughest, not only for me but also for quite a few of my volunteer friends. Sitting in the dining hall, in a fancy neighborhood in Nairobi, where a technical school for the Deaf was located, eating traditional Kenyan fare with my students, I found myself chatting up a storm with them and in a grand mood. Hell, why wouldn’t I be in a good mood? I was set to work with smart young Americans and Kenyans, hopefully creating a new class of inspired leaders of Kenya. After this week, I was set to go to South Africa with two of the coolest people I know. Of course, I was in a grand mood.

After dinner, a couple of the delegates started the program and discussed rules and expectations – during the first few questions, my students cautiously asked me if their answers were good enough, “If I say, ‘No Stealing.’ would that be a good answer?”

“What do you think?” I asked them.

“I think it’s a good answer.”

“Then go with it!”

I watched as their bright eyes become more confident, answering questions without asking me for approval, and interacting with the older students in the Western, Nyzanza, Central, and Nairobi provinces.

“Be proud of being from Pwani!” I told them repeatedly over the school year. “Even if we’re a new school, lacking a lot of materials, have some problems, always be proud of being students here.” I think they finally realized what I meant by saying this – other secondary schools had storied leaders come out of their schools, some embarking to such heights that their leadership was impossible to ignore when you look at the history of the Kenyan Deaf community. I watched the Kenyan delegates, some recently out of secondary school, all of them coming out from the Western and Nyanza provinces, they taught, they laughed, they worked, and interacted with the American delegates and students.

“Kisumu is where the next KYLC should be at!” One of the Kenyans said during lunch to cheers from some of the other delegates and to a bit of confusion from the American delegates.

“No way! The West has enough leaders! It’s time to focus on the Coast! Coast, all the way!” I said with a laugh, standing up for my province and home for the past year and a half. Amidst laughter all around from delegates, we had a friendly banter on who lived in the better province.

Throughout the week, we worked hard, eighteen hour days, suffering from sleep deprivation (and in my case yet another bout of Mister G), hashing out workshops, planning the next day’s schedule, identifying problems and addressing them, and laughing hysterically at Benard’s imitation of all GRO staff and support staff. The students learned loads about being future leaders, met many prominent people in the Kenya Deaf community, and shared their ideas and thoughts in discussions held by GRO staff.

The kids loved every minute of it – again, the same complaint came up this year – that KYLC simply wasn’t long enough even if they lengthened it by a few more days. After a week’s worth of education, blue and orange tee-shirts, a safe and orderly election in which the Kenyan constitution was passed, I got my kids ready to head back to the Coast, and took them into Nairobi and put them on the bus.

Watching my students leave, I breathed a huge sigh of relief, a huge responsibility off my back – I thought about how well the program went, and as a mini-reward, I decided to treat myself to a cup of cappuccino before I headed back. As I rode back, I thought, that was quite inspiring, regardless of all the problems. Even now, a month after the program, I realized that I don’t really remember the problems, only how positive the entire experience was for myself, as well as my students, and I can imagine for the rest of people involved.

Like GRO’s motto stated, “Inspiration is Contagious”, I was inspired, and I couldn’t think of a better way of wiping out a tough term and getting ready for an exciting trip.


This blog consists of my personal thoughts and opinions. It does not in any way reflect the position of the United States Government or the Peace Corps.