Thelma is a 6 years old girl living in Tole, a village in the South-West Region of Cameroon. Like many other children there, she is daughter of a single mother and an absent father, and from a very tender age she has known what hunger and poverty mean.
Unlike the children around her, she happens to be deaf. The Cameroonian Government does not support deaf children in any way, there is no government school for the Deaf, and there is no subsidy to have access to the scarce private institutions.
It is still common to hear expressions like the “deaf and dumb” in Cameroon, as most citizens do not have knowledge on the deaf and hard of hearing realities and believe they are just born stupid. So many deaf children grow up to be underdeveloped adults after not attending formal education (schools are not ready to take them) and not learning sign language or how to read and write.
NGO’s and private institutions take up alone the task to take care of the Deaf. In Buea (Capital of the South-West Region) Buea School for the Deaf is a deaf-led boarding school that does an excellent job. But government also fails to support them with proper financial assistance and they see themselves pushed to plead for international help and raise the school fees to more than five times the fee any other school or high school would ask for (More than 10 times what the cheaper institutions costs).
Given this government vacuum there is also absolute lack of coordination between teaching institutions, as they are mostly small charitable institutions with very limited resources and left to take care whole regions with populations in the millions.
Schools in the North-West are teaching American Sign Language, while in the South-West, Cameroonian Sign Language is taught. These are the two Anglophone regions. In the West Region, francophone, French Sign Language is taught. (These are examples I can talk about, there might be more in different regions).
This condemns successful students to a very small personal network of former students of the same institutions so that even among other educated deaf you are not always able to communicate. This to not mention the majority of rural populations in Cameroon won’t even have physical access to these institutions; there, deaf children limit themselves to the rudimentary communication methods they use with their parents and they live all their life under that constraint.
We were worried when we learned about Thelma, as she was on the risk of going towards that path. We just learned about her informally. Reach Out Cameroon (REO) empowers vulnerable women in Tole area, we train them and follow them through different steps while they make their way towards empowerment and self-reliance.
Thelma’s mother, Stephanie, is one of those amazing women who are beating all odds and impressing us with her progress and skillfulness to improve her situation, slowly but steadily. But she is still far from being able to pay for the school fees in Buea School of the Deaf. She might be in a few years, but she is clearly not there yet.
She was not receiving either any orientation or support on how to adequately address her child needs. Reach Out Cameroon is an NGO that cares about all vulnerable groups and about enforcing human rights, we had a mandate to do something about her. But we did not have any funding addressing such issues. Luckily we are partners of globalgiving.org and we could start a crowdfunding campaign to obtain the necessary money for one year of schooling.
We were incredibly lucky, a few benefactors quickly came to her assistance and every one (her mother, her school and ourselves) could finally be certain that she could make it for at least one year. Her evolution was impressive, she is still picking up with so many things but there is no doubt she is an amazing child.
She managed to teach her mother sign language during the holiday period (It’s a boarding school) and in this video you can see how she communicates with her. Thelma tries to write the ABC, and when she hesitates she looks at her mother, who will make the sign for the necessary letter. No one but Thelma, 6 years old, taught Stephanie those and many other basic signs.
So now we are facing another year and funding has not yet come to her assistance. The School for the Deaf has accepted her, as they are a trusted partner of us, but this is just temporary, if funding does not come through her situation will have to be revised.
This is the kind of absolute abandon to chance you are subject to when you are deaf and poor in Cameroon. If funding does not come through she will have to go back to her village with her mother and maybe wait for a few years for her to be stable enough to pay for the fees, her mental development will be hindered and she might forget altogether that she was one day this close to realizing all her potential, that she was this close to fully communicate with her mother, that she was this close to having an education and a real opportunity in the world. We found Thelma, and we are not certain we can help her. But how many other Thelmas in Cameroon will never even get this tiny chance?
If you want to support Thelma’s education follow this link:
If you also want us to start working towards a real support network for deaf children in Cameroon write us to the e-mail bellow and share your ideas and/or encouragement.
Article by Marc Serna. Marc works in Reach Out Cameroon, a Cameroonian NGO based in Buea that works for the rights and development of the most vulnerable groups all over the South-West Region of Cameroon.
Buea School for the Deaf: http://www.bueaschdeaf.org/
Reach Out Cameroon web and facebook: www.reachoutcameroon.org www.facebook.com/reachoutcameroon
Thelma’s funded project for last year: https://www.globalgiving.org/microprojects/send-thelma-to-school/
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