Lucy tells us about bringing Big Brother winner Sam Evans on board and a fantastic trip to Malawi
Ever since I joined Sound Seekers in 2012, I thought that the charity could benefit from an injection of glitterati. Hearing loss and deafness in sub-Saharan Africa is not the most fashionable of causes, after all. So when I discovered that the 2013 winner of UK Big Brother, Sam Evans, was not only a young deaf man who wore hearing aids, but also had a whiff of Harry Styles about him, I was hot on his trail. And so it was that in January 2014, the Sound Seekers team met Sam in London. We plied him with biscuits and hot drinks and named him our ‘person of the day’, which basically consisted of him wearing a plastic crown and us all posing for a photo (see below).
So now that we ‘had’ Sam Evans, what were we going to do with him? Here was a young, popular public figure with hearing loss, who wanted to help us in some way. I know, I thought, let’s make a film! We pencilled ‘make film with Sam Evans in Sierra Leone’ in the diary for November.
As November drew closer, the idea of making a film in Sierra Leone was called into question firstly by the Ebola outbreak and also by the small fact of still not having anyone to actually make the film (other than me and my iPhone). We decided to save the Sierra Leone film for happier times, and to take Sam to Malawi instead. I pressed ahead with finding someone who could make an amazing film for hardly-any-money-at-all.
Step forward Georgie Weedon and David Alexander from Gingerwink Films (https://www.gingerwinkfilms.com/). They fitted the bill perfectly – not only were they professional filmmakers, but they had experience making films in Africa and they liked playing Bananagrams. Malawi, here we come!
If you are a keen follower of Sound Seekers, you will have noticed that our activities in Malawi have ramped up a few gears over the past year. We now have an expatriate Audiologist, Dr Courtney Caron, working full time at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (‘Queen’s’) in Blantyre. The small audiology team, who have had at most one year’s formal training each, are deriving tremendous benefit from Courtney’s leadership of their department, as of course are the patients. Over the next four years, Sound Seekers will sponsor two Malawians to train in London as the country’s first ever Audiologists (see Lucy’s blog post “Malawian women who will lead their country’s audiology service
”), and we will build and equip an audiology clinic at Queen’s. At the end of the project, Malawi will have its first comprehensive, government run audiology service, led by two qualified Malawian Audiologists. This is big news for us, and what we would like to be doing in every country if we had the capacity. No shortage of film fodder then!
A UK Big Brother winner in Malawi was big news. We were inundated with requests for interviews with Sam for newspaper and television pieces. I appeared alongside Sam on Malawi breakfast television, which was a much bigger deal for me than for him, obviously. But I kept my cool and think I managed to come across as not dissimilar to Susanna Reid. We also managed to meet up with some other Big Brother contestants, but this time from Big Brother Africa. Fatima Nkata was a Malawian contestant on Big Brother Africa in 2013 and she positively embraced Sam’s visit and Sound Seekers’ mission in Malawi. She even invited the great and good from Malawi’s media scene to come and meet Sam at an exclusive soiree held at our hotel. Thanks Fatima!
Sam Evans with Sam Banda,
a Malawian journalist who wrote a story about him in The Daily Times
But hang on, weren’t we supposed to be making a film? Ah yes, the film…
We worked Sam pretty hard, but in return believe that he had a very eye-opening, once in a lifetime experience. I think all of us wonder at some point or another how our lives would have turned out if we had been born somewhere very different. In Sam’s case, his experiences in Malawi gave him a more vivid illustration of this than many people are ever exposed to. And of course, selfishly, we are hoping that seven days of ‘realising how lucky I am’ means that Sam will be a powerful ambassador for Sound Seekers’ work in Malawi and beyond for a long time to come.
The harsh reality is that if Sam had been born in Malawi, with his level of hearing loss, it’s possible that he never would have gone to school, which would of course have impacted his chances of earning a living and leading an independent life. Firstly, his parents might not have realised that he was deaf, they might have just thought he was stupid or disobedient. Secondly, even if they had realised he was deaf, they might not have known what educational opportunities exist in Malawi for deaf children, or indeed that it was possible to educate a deaf child at all. Thirdly, even if they did know about the small number of schools for deaf children, Sam would not have been guaranteed a place since most of the schools do not accept children over the age of 6, and demand for places far outstrips the number available.
It’s true that Sam could have gone to a mainstream school, however with severe hearing loss and no access to hearing aids or speech language therapy, it is unlikely that he would have survived long in classes of 60-70 pupils in classrooms with poor acoustics. If Sam had not managed to access any schooling at all, it is unlikely he would ever have learnt either to speak properly or to use sign language. It is not an uncommon fate for deaf people in sub-Saharan African to reach adulthood with no way of communicating with those around them, thus leading extremely isolated lives with no opportunity to develop their minds.
Over the course of the week, Sam met many deaf and hearing impaired Malawians, none of whom have had access to the kinds of services that have been available to him in Wales all of his life. Some of those he met have already benefited from Sound Seekers’ work in Malawi, such as Happy, Joyce and Richard. These encounters will feature in the film, which by the way is going to be called ‘Hear in Malawi’ (genius title).
Happy’s story (left) is one that we love to tell, and that’s not just because of his cool name. Happy is a little boy with hearing loss who struggled for several years to do well in his mainstream school. In fact he didn’t do well at all; he remained in the same class for three years. Earlier this year, however, Happy was finally fitted with hearing aids at Queen’s, by Courtney and her team. Sam learnt that when Happy returned to school wearing his hearing aids, some of his fellow pupils threw rocks at him or removed the hearing aids from his ears and ran home with them. Courtney and her Audiological Assistant, Mwanaisha, travelled to Happy’s school in Thyolo District and spoke to Happy’s teachers and classmates about how important it is for Happy to wear his hearing aids. Once his peers left him alone, Happy was finally able to concentrate in class and now that he could hear, actually learn something! He has finally moved up a class and on the day we met him, the expression on his face certainly lived up to his name. There are thousands more Happys across Malawi, with the roll-out of our project we hope to be able to help many more of them.
As a nine year old girl and a fifteen year old boy, Joyce and Richard (right) may not appear to have much in common. Both of them, however, became profoundly deaf very suddenly a few years ago – Richard due to the medication used to treat malaria, and Joyce after she was ill with mumps. Too deaf to benefit from hearing aids, if Joyce and Richard had been in the UK, they would have been eligible for cochlear implant surgery as soon as possible after losing their hearing, in order to give them the best chance of maintaining their speech and their ability to function in a hearing world.
In Malawi, however, no surgeon is trained to do cochlear implant surgery, and even if there were, the cost of the operation and device would be far beyond the reach of Joyce & Richard’s families. So it was a serendipitous mix of being in the right place at the right time, chance meetings and a very generous donation that led to British cochlear implant surgeon, David Strachan, agreeing to implant both Joyce and Richard in October this year. Neither David nor MED-EL (the company which donated the devices) would have agreed to the initiative if they were not satisfied that Joyce and Richard would have access to the necessary rehabilitative support after their devices were switched on. And who was going to provide these services? You guessed it, the Sound Seekers team in Blantyre, alongside our close colleagues and partners at ABC Hearing Clinic, 150 miles away in Lilongwe (Joyce lives closer to Blantyre and Richard to Lilongwe).
When Sam met Joyce and Richard at their homes, they were both awaiting the switch-on of their cochlear implants (which will happen by the end of the year), therefore they were not yet benefiting from them. It is going to be fascinating tracking their progress, via Courtney and her team, after the switch-on and as they re-join the hearing world. Just by spending a short time with them, we got a taste of how frustrating their lives must have been over the last few years. Unable to hear their own voices, let alone what other people are saying to them, both of them have almost completely stopped talking. Because they lost their hearing so rapidly they are not good at lip reading, nor have they had any sign language lessons. While Richard can read and write Chichewa, Joyce lost her hearing at an age when she was only just beginning to gain confidence in reading and writing and therefore writing messages to her is of limited usefulness. In general, life seems to go on over their heads and it is no wonder that both of their mothers reported that they had behavioural problems. One year from now, how different we hope their lives will be.
‘Hear in Malawi’ will feature Sam’s encounters with Happy, Joyce and Richard, and much more besides. There will be laughter, there will be tears, and there will be a big ball of wax which Mwanaisha removed from Sam’s ear. I hope that I have piqued your interest in seeing the film, when it’s finished… Hollywood, are you ready?
- Sam Evans is raising money for the Sound Seekers ‘Hear in Malawi’ appeal, which will go to establishing Malawi’s first comprehensive, government-led audiology service. We would really appreciate your support – please donate viahttps://www.justgiving.com/Sam-Evans13/ or text EVAN74 £2 / £5 / £10 to 70070. Every pound you give will be matched by the UK Government (via UK Aid), doubling the value of your donation and helping Sound Seekers to change the lives of twice as many deaf people.
- If you are interested in screening ‘Hear in Malawi’ at your local community centre/school/deaf club, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Gingerwink Films launched their education programme during this trip by leading a film workshop for Malawian university students in Lilongwe. You can read more about it here: https://tinyurl.com/kn3or7z
- To see Sam and Emily’s interview on breakfast TV in Malawi, visit: https://tinyurl.com/lpruq6j