Being deaf is a source of shame in Kenya - all my life I've worn hearing aids, so I’m glad I went there to help change attitudes
A deaf Co Londonderry teenager travelled to Africa to help kids whose hearing impairment is perceived as a punishment from God. He tells Stephanie Bell how volunteering is helping to break down taboos.
Magherafelt teenager Diarmuid Laverty knows the challenge of living every day without hearing - but nothing prepared him for the horror of spending the summer in a country where deafness is considered a curse from God and children are ostracised because they cannot hear.
Diarmuid (19), who has started the second year of a degree in psychology with criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, has just returned from three months volunteering among the deaf community in Nandi County in rural Kenya.
Poverty and prejudice mean deaf children in Nandi are often ignored and receive little support at school. Deafness is a source of shame for families and many parents don't know any Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) to enable them to communicate with their own children.
Diarmuid flew to the region to try and help to change this by volunteering with a new initiative in Kenya run by the International Citizen Service (ICS), in association with the deaf charity Deafway. ICS is funded by the UK government and managed by leading international development charity VSO.
He taught KSL to parents of deaf children so they could have a full conversation with their child for the first time. He also helped them access support for their children and taught local hospital staff KSL so they can support the deaf community more in future.
Alongside nine other people from the UK and 11 Kenyan co-volunteers, who are also deaf, Diarmuid also helped stage a deaf awareness march on September 16, which brought around 100 deaf and hearing people together from all over Nandi to fight for the rights of deaf people and bring an end to the discrimination.
"Disability in Kenya is quite stigmatised. Some people think that disability is a punishment from God or a curse. Some parents feel so embarrassed and ashamed that they hide their deaf children away," he says.
"We tried to reach out to isolated deaf people who lived in really remote areas. We brought them into our 'deaf spaces' where we were able to discuss their problems in their communities, families or schools."
Diarmuid was diagnosed as deaf at the age of just nine months old. He is one of six children and one of his two brothers and one of his three sisters are also deaf.
All three siblings have a genetic condition known as pendrid syndrome.
Usually there is a family history of hearing loss which indicates that parents are carriers of the rogue gene that could affect their children's hearing. Unusually for Diarmuid's parents, though, this was not the case.
"Both of my parents are hearing and both are carriers of the gene although no one in our family tree has been known to have it which is really unusual," he says.
"All my life I have worn hearing aids to help me hear, however, gradually my hearing will get worse and worse due to my pendrid syndrome.
"I communicate primarily by speech, but I do know sign language so I have both languages accessible for me whichever I choose to use to help me communicate. There are many challenges for a deaf person in my society, most of which are communication based.
"Many people do not know how to interact with a deaf person - like how we may rely on lip reading, or good lighting and body language. This means that actively all the time we may be fighting to understand and help others understand, which can be tiring.
"Other challenges are, because I can speak, people would assume that I can hear and so carry on as normal moving while talking or starting to use minimal lip movement and it can be disabling."
Diarmuid found out about the Kenyan project through a university friend who came across it on Facebook.
As most of his friends are hearing, Diarmuid says he didn't have a strong identity as a deaf person which initially made him hesitant about going. He found, though, that working with other deaf volunteers who were helping deaf people was immensely rewarding.
Emotionally, though, it was a challenge.
He says: "It was quite straining sometimes, not just with the mental health issues and the degradation of deaf people; but I also came across other problems people face out there in terms of women's rights, LGBT rights, animal rights and so on, which all matter deeply to me.
"To witness some things that I had previously only seen on TV made it difficult to detach myself from the situation at times.
"My main aim going was to get more of an idea of what it is to be in a different lifestyle, to live and eat like others do and literally put myself in others' shoes - to try and understand what differences there are in this world.
"Because this was a deaf project my focus was on the deaf community in Kenya. And I wanted to learn as much as I could about what differences we had between us.
"In Kenya you wouldn't see many disabled people on the streets or in town, many are stuck at home or living in deep poverty.
"When you get a deaf person that has never been to school, never been interacted with or home-taught anything it becomes very isolating. And, inevitably, it will have a negative impact on the person."
Diarmuid held a 'neighbourhood space', which was a support meeting he ran alongside a Kenyan deaf volunteer, and was surprised by the response.
He says people of all ages from the very old to the very young, with little or no sign language and some who were deaf and blind or deal with other conditions such as cerebral palsy/epilepsy/autism turned up in huge numbers in need of help.
He says: "By teaching KSL in our lessons they were getting their first understanding of days of the week, or could put colour to the food they eat or could describe their family with names and numbers. For many it was the first time they were accessing a form of education that they otherwise couldn't afford as special education is expensive in Kenya.
"So many families have no problems sacrificing those fees for food or clothes for the family as they see their child being deaf as a punishment from God or evidence of weak genetics.
"This subsequently causes anger and embarrassment which is taken out on the child."
One example of this was starkly brought home to Diarmuid through the behaviour of a very young boy who attended his groups.
"One little boy of about five or six was given a pen which he kept sticking into himself," he says. "He didn't see anything wrong with what he was doing because he had been beaten since birth as a punishment for being deaf."
The difference Diarmuid and the volunteers made to the lives of the people they touched will no doubt last a lifetime. And he recalls one of many positive outcomes which made the trip worthwhile for him.
"One girl who came to one of our deaf spaces didn't know how to read or write. She didn't know any sign language and she was born deaf as well, so she couldn't speak," she says.
"At first she was very quiet and solemn. She was just copying my hand movements but eventually, she signed: 'I can't wait to see you next week'. That's exactly why I did ICS in Kenya - it makes perfect sense. I'm really happy I did it."
Diarmuid and his co-volunteers taught 450 community members KSL, and registered 35 previously unidentified deaf children and young people to receive support from the Kenyan Government's National Council for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD).
Despite Kenya's deaf population numbering almost 190,000, many deaf people are not registered to receive the support they need.
While he still hasn't made up his mind about what career he wants to follow, Diarmuid says he knows for sure after his time in Kenya that more volunteering will be in his future.
"I really enjoyed teaching KSL - teaching what I've learnt to other people. I hope to travel next summer with my friends but without a doubt it is something I would like to do again," he adds.
- To find out more about ICS or to apply visit volunteerics.org