UK audiologist Gemma Twitchen volunteered for us in Zambia and her trip was covered in the recent edition of Action on Hearing Loss magazine.
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.
Earlier this year, Adonye Banigo volunteered for Sound Seekers in Ndola, Zambia. We asked him about his experience and what advice he would give to anyone planning to volunteer with Sound Seekers.
Q Why did you agree to volunteer for Sound Seekers in Zambia?
A Well, volunteering for Sound Seekers was sort of my idea. Sound Seekers provides a perfect combination of my chosen specialty as a doctor (Ear, Nose and Throat surgery) and my passion for improving the lives of children and adults in the developing world. I approached Sound Seekers in August 2011 and expressed my desire to volunteer, I also attended the AGM in December 2011 and saw some of the work being done. At the time there didn’t really seem to be any projects I could get involved in, until Emily Bell came along. And anyone who knows Emily knows how passionate she is about projects in the developing world. It was an interesting turn of events because I had got used to pestering Sound Seekers about getting onto a volunteer project; now I was having to explain to Emily that a year of volunteering was probably a bit too long for me! Next thing I knew I was jetting off to Lusaka. I was willing to go to any African country, really and Zambia just happened by chance, but I cannot emphasise how blessed and lucky I am to have visited such a beautiful country with amazing people.
Q How did it feel volunteering in an African country having lived in the U.K. for so long?
A It felt wonderful volunteering in an African country, it was easy to settle in and mix with the locals. I did voluntary work in Gambia and Senegal during medical school so I have had some experience of volunteering in Africa. I remember back then it struck me how different other West African countries were from my home country, Nigeria. Zambia was even more different, from the weather which distinctly lacked humidity to the tolerant calm people that always seemed willing to help. African countries are very unique with different healthcare needs, so I learnt the importance of targeting my volunteering experience to areas of most need.
Q What was the high point for you?
A The HARK! out-reach in Kanseshi Basic School for the deaf was an amazing experience. It was a busy two days where we saw many students and tested their hearing. What made it special was seeing how the students did not let their hearing and speech impairment affect their ability to interact. They were outgoing, confident and entertaining.
In a brief interlude during the day, we had a deaf musician perform and he got everyone on their feet showing off their dance moves. Emma Case photographed many of these fantastic moments.
Q What do you feel you gained from the experience?
A I learnt that even though I am still in training to become a qualified ENT surgeon, I have acquired knowledge and skills I can use to improve the lives of deaf people in the developing world. I gained more confidence and a feeling of self-worth, a contrast to life working in the NHS where one can feel insignificant and not appreciated at times. From all the staff I met in the different hospitals I visited in Zambia, I have gained a lot of friends who are like my family now and I know we will continue to keep in touch for many years to come.
Q How do you feel the work Sound Seekers does makes a difference in developing countries?
A Sound Seekers is doing significant work in developing countries and making a huge impact on many lives. The HARK! outreach service provides primary ear care to individuals in remote areas. The training courses funded by Sound Seekers are building local knowledge and expertise. The equipment we supply is aiding diagnosis and treatment of ear, nose and throat disorders. Now we are looking to set up local training courses in Zambia for ENT clinical officers, which will help boost the numbers of clinicians with ENT expertise in the country. I feel privileged to be a part of Sound Seekers and I hope more funding becomes available to help support our work.
Q What three pieces of advice do you have for other potential volunteers?
A Do it, do it, do it! Volunteering for Sound Seekers is an experience that will stay with you for life for all the right reasons. And because Sound Seekers is a relatively small organisation, it is personable and has a close-knit group of staff that will make sure you are looked after when you volunteer. If you don’t quite feel up to jetting off to an African country you know little about, there are lots of other ways you can volunteer by raising money locally through charity events, etc. Get in touch with the very nice Sound Seekers team for more info.
Q If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and why?
A I would eradicate poverty and the disparity between the rich and the poor because poverty is a common denominator in individuals in developing countries with poor health.
Q What are your future plans? Are there any more missions on the horizon?
A I have lots of plans for the future, but in relation to volunteering I have no further missions planned as yet but watch this space…