Lucy (Sound Seekers CEO) brings us up to speed on work in Ndola, Zambia
One of the best things about my job is the opportunity to get to know people in the seven countries where we have projects, and being able to enrich these relationships with each visit. The most fun aspect of this is revisiting schools for the deaf, where I can reconnect with children who I haven’t seen for a year or so, and who with any luck remember me and my sign name ‘bell’, which involves miming ringing a bell.
And so it was that in September, I found myself again at the unit for deaf children at Kansenshi Basic School in Ndola, Zambia. The last time I visited Kansenshi was during International Week of the Deaf in September 2012, when Sound Seekers supported a clinic at the school for ear care and hearing aid fitting. We were lucky to have with us a photographer, Emma Case, who took lots of beautiful photos of the children, including the award-winning (not really, but should have been) photo of 7 year old Elizabeth Zimba, below.
I’m happy to report that many of the children at Kansenshi appeared to remember me, and my cockles were warmed when Elizabeth greeted me with a big hug! I organised with the head teacher, Mabel, a screening of Emma’s photos from 2012 for all the children. A room full of over-excited deaf children is a very noisy and entertaining place – they found seeing themselves on the big screen absolutely hysterical. I had asked Mabel in advance of the screening to invite Elizabeth’s mother along, firstly because I wanted to give her copies of the beautiful photos of her daughter, and secondly because I wanted to understand more about what life is like for a deaf child in Zambia, and Elizabeth seemed the obvious place to start.
Cecilia and Francis Zimba have six children, and Elizabeth is number four. Cecilia says that when Elizabeth was about one and a half, she noticed that she wasn’t communicating in the same way that her other children had. Elizabeth also has a very distinctive appearance in that she has blue eyes and some streaks of grey hair. Medical professionals in the UK have seen photos of Elizabeth and conclude that it is highly likely that she has Waardenburg Syndrome, however Cecilia Zimba has never heard of that. To her and the rest of the family, Elizabeth has always simply been deaf and unable to speak, and as a family they have had to learn how to interact with her so that she is not isolated. The efforts the family has gone to (Cecilia has been learning sign language through her church and Elizabeth’s siblings have picked up signs from Elizabeth herself), and the fact that Elizabeth is enrolled at a special unit for deaf children means that Elizabeth is luckier than many other deaf children in Zambia, and sub-Saharan Africa more generally. Many of Elizabeth’s fellow pupils at the unit for deaf children in Ndola are young adults, even though it is a primary school. This is because deaf children in poor countries often start school much later than they should, either because parents don’t understand what is wrong with their child in the first place or because they have subscribed to the commonly held belief that deaf children cannot be educated.
On visiting Elizabeth at home, it is pretty clear that despite being the only deaf member of the family, she is usually at the centre of things. During my short visit, she commandeered my attention by extravagantly showing me around the small family home and making absolutely certain that I had a good look at her various school exercise books by pushing them under my nose. Elizabeth’s family is very poor – as the photos below show. There is no running water in the household, sporadic electricity supply, and Elizabeth shares a bedroom with an older sister and aunt – all sleeping together on some thin mats and blankets that barely separate them from the hard floor. Five years ago, Elizabeth’s father had a stroke, leaving him partially paralysed and limiting his earning capacity; now, the little income that the family has comes from selling chickens and grocery products in their community. When I showed the pictures below during an assembly at Mary Hare School for the Deaf in Newbury, the week after I returned from Zambia, the children’s eyes were as large as saucers.
It is sobering to remember that had Elizabeth been born in UK, her deafness would have been identified at birth and it is highly likely that she would have been fitted with a cochlear implant, maybe even two (like many of the pupils at Mary Hare). As a result, she would have had a good chance of developing speech and language, and her horizons would be significantly broader than they are now.
Despite the difficult conditions that they live in, I was at pains to emphasise to the children at Mary Hare that Elizabeth comes from a happy and loving family, and Cecilia and Francis Zimba are doing their best for all of their children. Their eldest sons, aged 23 and 19, are both still in education and keen to pursue careers in medicine and engineering respectively. Elizabeth is clearly bright and hopefully will continue to do well at school. Since my visit, the Sound Seekers team in Ndola has fitted her with hearing aids. Although these won’t enable her to develop speech overnight, she will be able to pick up more sounds, especially loud sounds. This is not trivial – deaf children are very vulnerable pedestrians, and hearing aids will help Elizabeth hear a large truck approaching from behind when she couldn’t before. They may also help her pick up more sounds when she’s dancing, Elizabeth loves to dance.
Sound Seekers is working with the main hospital in Ndola, Elizabeth’s home town, to establish quality audiology services. This includes training health personnel, providing equipment and organising placements of audiology and ENT professionals to support Zambian staff to upgrade their skills.