I know you’ve all probably been wondering where I have been over the past few months (perhaps most of you didn’t actually realize my long-standing disappearance). I’m not entirely sure I have an answer. December to May transpired so quickly I’m still catching my bearings and glancing at calendars confused why it’s not still April. Despite the days changing from humid and sweaty to chilly and breezy, with the hours of daylight slowly diminishing.
I took a much-needed trip to London and Edinburgh in December/January where I got to catch up with old friends and take long puffs of fresh air. It was amazing. It reminded me of why I first left the north-eastern coast of North America, for the south-eastern coast of Africa. I missed my friends and adoptive families from Swaziland, and I felt rejuvenated and reinvigorated to continue what I had started; projects that had quickly raveled themselves into a mess, tangled and interwined, inextricably linked, one of the biggest puzzles I have ever come across.
January was a fit of emotions. There was massive uncertainty regarding how events would unfold. Without an official head teacher or deputy head teacher it felt like everything was just hanging in the wind, there wasn’t much keeping any of us grounded. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so helpless before. I felt alone in my vision and goals for the students and my school. I used every ounce of fire I had to keep the slightest of sparks going. I spent days enfuriated by the circumstances that I was forced to live in, further exasperated that this was a small fraction of my life, while it was the majority of the lives of those whom I had come to care for most. I felt heartbroken and betrayed in ways I never thought I would, while simultaneously battling internally, whether my feelings were justified at all. I’ll try to explain.
There are several teachers at my school pursuing their bachelor’s and master’s degrees. This is great, fantastic even. However, the aspect of this knowledge that has been cutting into me for over a year, is the lack of practical application of what they’re learning, particularly for those studying “Special Educational Needs”. More and more, the pursuit of these degrees appears more to be about self-advancement –at the stake of the students—than actually seek to improve the conditions and experiences of the very people they have promised to serve. This is extremely painful. Kubuhlungu kakhulu. Perhaps because I have become exremely protective over the students, and feel that they are being exploited as test subjects for a means that does not impact their end. While they are still stagnated in their education, their teachers are expanding their educational experience exponentially. I am still uncertain how to feel about all of this. I’ve felt raw, jaded and infuriated. But perhaps bearing the most impression on my soul; disappointed. Given the circumstances, it would take a small miracle for any of my students to even come close to applying to university within the next 10 years. This is if they overcome the already prevelant barriers that leave them with a less than satsifactory education.
This has been our reality:
My school is a primary school with students enrolled in pre-school through grade 7. This is fabulous. However, on average, most students begin pre-school at the age of 9. One of the new students this year was 16. This is mainly because there are no programmes in Swaziland that seek to address early identification or family intervention of Deaf children and their families. So when babies are born, they do not receive a hearing test, and beyond that, even when parents see signs of deafness, the lack of awareness on what to do is so inadequate, it may take years for parents to realize that there is even a school for the Deaf in Swaziland.
To add another layer to that, teachers are not required to learn or know Swazi Sign Language in order to work at the school. Therefore, the 40 years of existence, only 1 teacher has sought SSL lessons (and employment) before joining the school. All other teachers have been randomly placed here, lacking passion for adapting their teaching methods to meet the needs of the students (which I will simplify as: Shut Your Piehole—I feel like we tend to overcomplicate issues that aren’t all that complicated). Beyond that, teachers will not be reprimanded for not becoming fluent or conversant in SSL. Thus, there are several teachers who have been at the school for more than 5 years and still can barely hold a conversation in SSL. No matter, it’s super easy to teach information to people have no idea what you’re saying.
The government is far from knowing the solution to all of this, even though we have enough opinions on the matter that would probably take a year just to summarize. With that said, there are no interpreting services in Swaziland, and while there are 2-3 SSL teaching facilities, they are not standardized or in support of each other, and the employment of interpreters—if there were (m)any, has yet to become a common train of thought at institutions such as the courts, police stations, hospitals or even schools.
Although the High School for the Deaf was constructed and opened in 2010(ish) –(although this is even under dispute), no exit strategies were concieved. Moreover, the schools have been in a feud since the high schools’ inception. Fun fun fun. In the 5-8 years of its existence, no students have passed the external examiniations or junior certificate, the vocational programme was never opened (no qualified teachers were ever hired), and it only reaches 38 students, aged 18-35, which leaves room for a whole host of other issues. Even if the students did pass, Swazi Universities are far from being ready to support and include a Deaf student in their courses, without an interpreting service, people available to construct and adjust hearing aids, etc.
As part of my old HT’s crusade… to “kill the black mamba which is the high school”… we sought cooperation with the location technical school, Siteki Industrial Training College, which offers vocational training in metal work, motor mechanics, sewing, building, agriculture and carpentry. Six students who completed grade 7 opted to take this route. It’s been great, but they could really use more support than the ample amount of time I have been spending with them. They need a full time interpreter. We also need a career guidance teacher who can help finagle more opportunities for them. Woof.
So this has been weighing on my conscious for quite some time now, as I’ve been wracking my brain for any possible solution to this tangled web of awfullness. The hardest part has been leaving behind the notion that you need to know the root of the problem in order to fix it. I suppose it all ties back to SSL, but even then, there are so many things that need to be or should be, rather, in place before more doors can open that it’s practically unfathomable to picture a time when this isn’t such a clusterfuck. Please excuse my plain English.
The above leaves me simultaneously motivated to solve this massive puzzle, and overwhelmed at all that needs to be done to even make a fraction of a difference. I am without words… signs really, to even advise my students on the decision they should make…what actions will impact their lives most positively and help them achieve their goals. If I were in their shoes, I feel like I’d be terribly lost too. I now know the real meaning of being in between a rock and a hard place. There is literally no room to budge, and either side looks just as enormous, unpleasant and challenging as the other. There is no clear solution, I’m just witlessly chipping away, hoping that eventually one side will give.
I am excited about little things that I’ve been working to set into motion. Here are some highlights:
-I interpret 1-2 times a week at SITC, the vocational school, and I have been working with the teachers there to develop teaching aids and strategies to create a more inclusive environment.
-I am working on organizing an Adult Education programme for the Deaf adults working at my school, with the end goal hopefully resulting in them passing their Junior Certificate and receiving a High School diploma.
-I am still plugging away at my Sign Language Reference book
-My third year project *fingers crossed* will hopefully be linked to the creation and implementation of an early identification and family intervention programme
-I absolutely love Swazi Sign Language, and feel so blessed to be surrounded by such amazing, inspiring and resilient people. Despite all of this, they keep marching on.
My heart may be heavy, but it’s also full.