1. Keep several project ideas situated at the “back burner” of your mind.
2. Don’t despair at the absurd, go with it.
3. Don’t hold too tightly to one vision, leave room for growth and change.
4. Let things happen on their own time, at their own pace.
A year ago I was sitting in the Staff Room at my school. It was integration, and I was trying hopelessly to follow along, my ears wanting desperately to tune out to the intricate discussions in siSwati, and my eyes feeling heavy, drooping as I tried to absorb as much Swazi Sign Language as possible. However, my ears and eyes perked up when my Head Teacher mentioned something about a Sign Language book… My mind drifted back to PST, to when Megan and I had began receiving Swazi Sign Language lessons. Thobile, our teacher, was explaining some of the challenges that the Deaf Community faced in Swaziland, and one of the major issues was the language barrier. This was the first time the idea of creating a SSL manual had emerged, and it seemed like it would be a rather significant project…
So, after the meeting was finished, I meandered into my Header Teacher’s office and asked her about the book. I then learned that a group of teachers and support teachers had been working to assemble a SSL book, the very first of its kind. This included painstakingly hand-drawing hundreds of signs, complete with arrows directing motion. Upon mentioning my interest in helping with the project, my HT’s face lit up, and so I became a member of the school’s Sign Language Committee.
The following week, the committee came together and began to draft a plan for the project, who is the book being produced for? What is the goal of the book? How will it be paid for? How are we creating it? And so on. We sat and discussed the next steps, which included putting together a proposal to submit to the Ministry of Education & Training. It was also quickly established, that although, they had worked so hard to hand-draw all those images, taking pictures would be a much easier and faster way to go. We established a time-line and in bold writing, we set the bar high: Have the book completed by Oct. 1, 2014. We gave ourselves one year. I remember thinking Yeah right.
Despite our plan, none of us were exactly certain what the best approach or process was to creating such a book. We had several examples from Uganda, South Africa, and even the United States to give us some guidance and inspiration. I began to spend hours pouring over the content, and compiling a list of topics that might be important to include in a Sign Language book. When we first started drafting this project, we had a list of roughly 2,000 words that we might want to include… as a base. The vision was originally to create a full dictionary. I think this illustrates perfectly how projects change and adapt overtime, adjusting to better meet the visions we layout for ourselves. As there was no foundation for a project of this type, we were establishing the base, while a much larger dictionary is necessary, and will hopefully be created in the future; it became evident that a “beginners” guide was crucial. A means through which pertinent building blocks could be placed in order to support future development of Swazi Sign Language, and address some of the over-arching challenges facing the community.
As the months ticked on by, the Sign Language Committee continued to meet and assemble speculated pieces of what was going to be our book. We continued working on the proposal, and contacted printing companies throughout Swaziland to get quotations. The only printing company that responded was Print Pak (located in Mbabane), and they gladly met us at the school in order to discuss the details. By the time March rolled around, little real progress had been made. The proposal, expanded to “Sign Language Development” at the schools for the Deaf, had been submitted, critiqued, re-submitted and approved. Yet, nothing seemed certain, or even likely, for that matter. My friend, Lindiwe arrived for her two week “vacation” (She had offered graciously to help out with some projects while visiting, specifically making god use of her super swanky camera), and thus began the “So… this is happening” Era of my service.
So we rolled up our sleeves and dove on in. We drafted a plan of attack, and got started. I had a list of words we thought would be appropriate for a “beginner” volume (dropping the original list of 2,000 down to about 500). The words were grouped in categories. We used a divider from the Library, and a well-ironed blue sheet as our backdrop. I would sit in front of Phumzile or Anthony and sign or fingerspell the word we wanted a picture of, and Lindiwe would work like crazy to capture what unfolded before her. This was definitely a rocky process, but quickly became routine. We spent about two hours a day for two weeks taking images, discussing the history of specific signs, and working our best to do the language justice. By the time she flew home, Lindiwe had taken over 3,000 images. We were all in awe. Up until that point, I had very low expectations that this whole thing would come together. But then it did. So that happened.
Over the school break, I began to compile a massive word document that was the lo-tech, blasé version of the book. Again, I’d like to point out that I had really no idea what I was doing. It was around this time that Print Pak emerged from the woodwork, following up on the progress we had made. (Honestly, if it weren’t for Print Pak, the book would probably still be a black-and-white word document putzing around on my computer, while I tediously, and angrily tooled around with the formatting). They came and met us at the school again, and collected all of the images, with the expectation that I would come by the office and drop off the word document when it was more or less finished. I had carefully labeled each image, so that expedited the process a little bit, but the fact remained, no one at the office new SSL, thus had no idea what it would look like in printed form.
I felt a new sense of excitement for this project, and it started to feel real. I printed off a list of the English words used in the book and my Head Teacher gave each teacher 5 pages, in order to fill in the siSwati words. They actually enjoyed this… and came back requesting for more. Mostly, we were all elated by the fact that it was slowly coming together. One thing that I never waivered on was ensuring that the book represented the community. I met with several key stakeholders such as Swaziland’s National Association for the Deaf (SNAD), which gave the book a sense of authenticity that would otherwise have been lost.
I may have been the one assembling the information, but it wasn’t my story to tell. In one of many conversations with my Head Teacher, I realized something rather powerful. She had wanted to create a Sign Language manual for over ten years, but had consistenly been told such a project was impossible. She had met several barriers that immobilized her, and needed someone or something to help her move past those obstacles (and more obstacles emerge everyday). A similar sentiment was shared by SNAD, it had been in operation for twenty-five years, but nothing like this had ever been done. However, this made me realize that they trusted me with their dreams, and that motivated me even more.
It is important to note that my role in (and attitude towards) the project changed over time. I came into integration with little intention to lead anything. Motivate, encourage, interrogate, sure, but lead. NO. However, what became clear to (drawing back to my last article) is how significant it is to be comfortable filling a gap, but remaining concious on the gaps you may leave behind. As the project continued to unfold (with many unexpected twists and turns), I began to see things very differently. But it became evident that one of the major setbacks… the reason that there had never been a SSL book before, was not due to lack of interest, but rather, lack of hands who were able to dedicate a signficant portion of their time to such a project. I think this is a crucial aspect of being a volunteer, providing support where otherwise, there may be none.
Eventually, I more or less finished compiling the information into the word document, and made my way to Mbabane to drop off the file at Print Pak. I was clueless as to how the book would come together. I thought that I would primarily be in charge of designing, editing, and compiling the book. I soon learned that they had a team of designers , and that one had been assigned to this particular project (Praise be to Beyonce and may she sing and dance un-interrupted). They called him down, and I began explaining the book; it’s vision, the layout, etc. Un-phased, he collected all of the materials and that was that. A week later, the first draft was finished, and my eyeballs nearly fell out of my sockets. Most of the signs were incorrectly placed, and there was a sufficient amount of editing that needed to be done… but it looked like a bonafide book. Upon receiving it, I danced around school for a good two hours, showing it the students, the teachers, and support staff. Then the serious editing began, but I’ve been lucky that Print Pak has been so flexible. With each meeting, new ideas were exchanged, and the pieces slowly began to come together to complete the product I proudly hold in my hands today.
So where are we now? Good question. The downside to being the first is it often means that there are no systems in place or specific protocols to follow. Thus, even if the book is only used internally as a resource for our community, there is debate about the larger impact the book may have in Swaziland. There is even more debate about what that would mean in terms of completing the book. So once again, I’m floating in ambiguity, but none-the-less confident that the solution will emerge in due time. The book may have taken a year to come together, but it never felt rushed. I was being trusted with people’s dreams, their culture and their language, and that was not something to take lightly.
During a meeting with the Director of SNAD I had a rather intense conversation around approaching words that there weren’t signs for (especially science and social studies). This gave way to the Deaf Association organizing a Sign Language Development meeting, whereby prominent members of the Deaf community came together and discussed in relative depth, the use of certain signs, as a way to begin standardizing the language. One of the biggest challenges that is attached to a project like this, is that SSL varies immensely depending on which Deaf community you are interacting with. Signs between the primary and high school are noticeably different, and then there’s village sign. As the first printed manual for SSL, it was understood that there was some obvious leniency when it came to the pictures chosen to represent certain signs that may be under dispute. Luckily, all parties agreed upon the fact that this was a starting point, and hopefully the beginning of a long process to enhance and develop the language
Being invited to the Sign Language Development meeting was amazing. I had already been aware that when the school first opened, the use of SSL was banned, and if caught, students would be beaten. Thus, the only time sign was spoken was at night in the dorms, and this was the only chance the students had to develop their language. I learned that certain places in Swaziland were given sign names, not as literal translations of their siSwati meaning, but because a classmate was from near there, so it was associated with their Sign names, and so on. I learned that the sign for “shoe” developed in response to how teachers emphasized certain words as they taught. As the teachers would enunciate “SSSSHHH—OOOOUUUU” they would slide their right hand under their mouth and across their chin. The more stories I learned, the more anxiety I felt around producing something that would accurately represent something that not only acted as a mode of communication, but was an important aspect of a rich history, that had long been ignored and undermined (It’s okay to ask what the meaning behind a sign is, but it isn’t okay to tell someone that the way in which they interact with the world around them is wrong. This is a common occurrence in Sign Language lessons at the school, when teachers perplexed by the sign for a word, protest, gesturing what they think the sign should be).