I love these pictures of Leila – you can get a real sense of who she is I think. Massive show-off (check out the posing), super confident, funny, beautiful, little bit naughty sometimes. She’s also big into dressing up.
Often when I work with Leila people ask the usual questions; can she be ‘cured’ (that’s a whole debate on cochlear implants that I’m not going to start on this blog. She doesn’t have one and my personal view is that she doesn’t need one); does she know she is deaf (not at the moment. Amy will try to help her understanding by signing to her that her ears are ‘broken’, which always gets a resounding “no, they’re fine” and a double thumbs up. Obviously we’ll be helping her to come to understand that she’s deaf but I think it speaks volumes about how little it’s affecting her life at the moment, even though she lives in a predominantly hearing environment); can she understand you (weird one, but then I forget what it’s like to have no knowledge of the deaf community. A lack of vocalised response does not mean she doesn’t understand: the girl is smart).
As a freelancer I worked with deaf adults and teenagers mainly and I’ll admit I was nervous about teaching someone little, but she makes it so easy. Every new sign she learns she’ll remember and then try it out later in her own conversations with you. A lot of the learning is done just through everyday happenings: an eagle crash landed in the garden and there followed a big old conversation about the bird being ill and how it couldn’t go to hospital like Granval’s friend and how it was probably going to die and where its parents were and why we shouldn’t touch it and we needed to keep the cat and dogs away from it and how it wasn’t nice to tease it and very vigorous bashing signs (hers not mine) for the possible demise of the bird at the hands of the Askari… Of course this took a while but later I witnessed her retelling the whole story with her new signs to her Mum. I’m in awe with how quickly she picks things up.
Obviously I’m not doing this all by myself – her whole family signs with her and part of my role is to teach them signs and ways of communication. I’ve baked cakes together with Leila and her brothers and sisters where no one was allowed to use their voice or write anything down and everyone had their own task so needed to communicate with someone else to get the job done. If you knew the sign you used it or found another way to communicate. The idea was to create an understanding of how difficult and frustrating it can be if you can’t communicate and understand each other clearly (a feeling that Leila may have when hanging out with her siblings), to think of other ways to communicate with Leila that don’t require a vast knowledge of BSL, and also just to have fun. She adores her brothers and sisters and a day pulling funny faces, drawing pictures in the air and covering ourselves with icing sugar (Is that flour? Can I taste it? Mmmh, can I have some more? Can I eat it with a spoon? Can I put it in your hair?), really seemed to work.
We go to school together (there’s a story about my perceived over-excitement and subsequent signing of the fact they have monkeys in the playground – apparently it’s not a big deal here, even to a 4-year old – but I’ll save that for another time…or it’s probably on youtube) and in September she starts reception so we’re currently doing colours and emotions and the books The Rainbow Fish and Brown Bear. She’s the only deaf child in her school, in fact I think she’s their first, but the school are keen to learn of ways of working with her and the end of my first two weeks saw me at the front of assembly, signing with 20-30 other children the song We Are the Champions by Queen, supported by a parent with a very impressive voice and set of guitar-playing skills.
And Leila is lucky – she goes to a good school, has a family who love and support her and is not perceived to be nor does she perceive herself to be disabled. In Tanzanian culture, deafness is perceived as a disability and therefore treated as a burden. I have yet to visit the local deaf school but already know it by reputation – no resources, teachers who can’t sign, children beaten for being ‘stupid’. There is a Tanzanian sign-language and I’m interested to see if there’s a community attached or if people are hidden away. To that end I’m starting Tanzanian sign-language classes next week and I’m interested to see how different it is.
So expect more on Leila – I’m looking forward to next school year and spending time with her. Sure, sometimes she’s annoyed with me (this largely consists of her closing her eyes so she can’t see me signing, generally when I’m signing the word no) but I’m hoping that we’re becoming friends as her world is a pretty weird and wonderful one and I’m enjoying being part of it.