Sara Kendall: What I learned from volunteering with Deaf people in Kenya

Posted on November 1, 2016



When I left the UK to volunteer with VSO-ICS in Kenya on the 29th June, there were so many questions running around in my mind; would I have a nice family at my host home? Would I get on with other volunteers? Could I cope being away from home for three months in a third world country?

When we arrived in Nairobi, we met our fellow Kenyan volunteers which altogether made a team of 22 along with the team leaders and staff including BSL and Kenyan interpreters.

After four days of training, and travelling six hours by bus, we arrived in our community of Kapsabet, Nandi County where we would be based. The town itself is small, with wooden huts posing as shops, coca cola signs plastered all over with the names of the businesses such as ‘Samba’s Shop’ with some hotels and petrol stations.

There were motorbikes, one carrying a bulk of wood that was three metres long balancing on the back with three persons bundled together and some cars were polluting out thick black smog with countless bumps in the roads.

There were many children wearing dirty clothes full of holes. They hung out in the main transport hub next to the Naivas supermarket (the local community joked that if anybody wanted to find one of the volunteers, just go to that supermarket!). Some of the children were addicted to sniffing glue in the bottle and begging for money and homeless…. It was clear that poverty was evident in the town.

However, this environment was different to my host home which I would spend three months living in. It was picturesque, abundant with tea plantations, and had clear air with no smog. I was partnered with Josephine and Daniel as my counterparts. We lived with Priscilla, Chief of Kiminda and her husband Jackson who is a farmer.

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My host parents’ eyes widened when I told them I would cook them English dishes every Friday. The first time they tried spaghetti Bolognese along with my Kenyan counterparts, their faces were a picture! They had never eaten pasta before. Living with them has made my experience in Kenya more enjoyable along with them trying to get me to kill a chicken and milking the cows to have a cup of tea and to cook their staple food of ugali (flour and water mixed together to create a dough-like consistency).

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After being allocated in the Media group out of four different committees, I came up with the idea of setting up ‘VSO-ICS Deaf volunteers in Nandi County’ page on Facebook. We thought it was a good opportunity to share information with the United Kingdom, Kenya and the world in relation to what we were doing with our project and what we were aiming to achieve.

The stories of volunteers both Kenyan and UK have been instrumental in raising awareness and sharing our unique backgrounds has helped the volunteers to understand each other more. We also produced a short film showing our daily lives in Kapsabet as a volunteer, from waking up in the mornings to using our regular method of transport to our work placement to eating dinner at host home and at the end of the day, retiring to bed. The placements varied from working in a youth centre to working in the community to teaching in a school.

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Granted, there were some challenges arising from this project… the people’s attitude towards/about deaf people in Kapsabet was dated, some thought deaf people were cursed by witchcraft. There were parents neglecting to send their deaf child to school because they were deaf and they preferred to utilize their money on their hearing child as they felt it would probably be wasted on the deaf child.

It also did not help that the special schools’ fees cost considerably more in comparison to regular schools’ fees. The education for deaf people in Kenya was limited and there are clear cases of discrimination. There was a survey week allocated in our project and I was put in the group interviewing parents of deaf children with a mixture of Kenyan and UK volunteers. We explained to them how it was important for them to learn KSL in order to facilitate better communication with their deaf child and we then explained to them that we had set up free classes for them to come in to learn Kenyan Sign Language.

Most of the parents were so keen to learn they actually walked an hour to get to the class if they couldn’t afford the bus (matatus) fare. They came every week and since then, they have improved their relations with their child. The aim of this project was to halt the stigma for deaf people in Nandi by creating awareness campaigns, educational materials, and holding public events encouraging integration between hearing and deaf communities.

People in the community kept calling the volunteers ‘Mzungu’ which translates to ‘white people.’ They stare at us because they have not seen a white person before. In the first day of my placement working in a deaf school, there were some children coming up to me and touching my arm and hair because they were fascinated of the difference in colour and feel.

One time, at my host home my mother had a visitor and he just kept staring at me when I was eating my dinner. I enquire why he did that shortly after he left. My host mother writes that Kenyans believe that white people eat, act, walk differently to them and they can’t comprehend the ideology of white people doing things in the same way as them because it is believed that the blacks are ‘monkeys’ in her own words.

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This was due to them thinking we are richer than them and the visitor questioned why would we share and live in the same house as them. I remember thinking why would he assume that? This did not speak any truth from my eyes, therefore I wrote back making it clear that I was honoured to be welcomed by them and to live under their roof. The colour of the skin is not important to me because in my view, all are equal regardless. She then gets up, hugs me and she had the biggest smile.

She emerged a short while later, wearing a beige jumper followed with firm black trousers. She told me that she was going to arrest someone soon because there was a dispute over land and we should settle down for the night. My host mother is a chief and this was her uniform. She rode away on her motorbike with the handcuffs dangling from her bag.

During the project, we managed to paint the buildings of two schools, adding educational posters that were deaf friendly i.e. more visual, and we also constructed a playground filled with swings, obstacle course and more. The deaf children were so happy to have something to do during their break times.

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We taught KSL classes, started two new forums for deaf people and hearing relatives to meet and discuss issues and to share information. We made some noise by marching through the town twice, once for raising deaf awareness and second for celebrating the official recognition of Kenyan Sign Language which occurred six years ago.

We wanted to integrate the hearing and deaf communities together and this appeared to have been a success when we left the project, with two locals taking over the classes known as ‘deaf spaces’ to continue fighting for more access and services for deaf individuals in Kapsabet. We managed to send some children to school as a result and hopefully with the next cycle of volunteers, this will continue.

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There were some noticeable differences between the views of people in the UK and Kenya. Some of the Kenyan volunteers had traditional attitudes such as stating that men are above women and that women should be in the kitchen. Some of the UK volunteers were not pleased about that, but we realised that growing up around people who had the same belief naturally influenced their perceptions of how women should be treated.

We felt it was important to change their views on this by educating them and sharing our experience in UK. After 12 weeks, it has made a difference because some of the Kenyan volunteers have changed their attitude and one male volunteer has even helped to cook in the kitchen! Another female volunteer revealed that she wants to fight for deaf women rights in Kenya when she has finished with the project. There are some interesting facts in Kenya such as when a man asks for a hand in marriage, the woman’s parents usually asks for some cows as a form of dowry.

This experience has been one of the best things I have done in my life and I hope the VSO-ICS will continue with this project for next year and the year after that! Any future potential volunteers out there, just do it. Yes, you will face challenges, you will have to do things you never done at home such as squatting in the toilet and bathing from a bucket of water outside but you will also have the time of your life, you will meet some people that will later become your friends, you will experience a new culture which you will dearly miss when you arrive back home.

I plan to go back one day, perhaps as a team leader so you might see me there! 😉

Sara describes herself as “a wanderluster….I am a dreamer! I love travelling and seeing the world. I would love to work in international development one day as I have immensely enjoyed my time volunteering in Sri Lanka and Kenya. I am also a Great British bake off fan! Eventually I hope to become a special educational needs teacher. 

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