[intro]September is dedicated to both heritage and to the deaf community. The Department of South African Sign Language (SASL) at the University of the Free State recently hosted a picnic on the campus to raise awareness of deafness and celebrate deaf pride. Vice-Chancellor Professor Jonathan Jansen, SASL students and well as young people from the Bartimea School for the Deaf were in attendance. Meqoqo (conversations) has as its focus this week, an interview with student Nyasha Ruvimbo Chikiwa on issues related to culture, stereotypes and living with deafness.[/intro]

A group of students gather at the Red Square of the Bloemfontein campus with different placards. Contrary to the normal noises and chants which accompany such, the messages on the boards and T-shirts make the loudest noise in this gathering. “Deaf Pride”, “My eye is my ear. My hand is my mouth”.

Nyasha Chikiwa is one of them. Chikiwa, a first year BA Fine Art student, was born deaf in Pretoria into a family of four sisters and a brother to Zimbabwean parents in 1987. Two years before her birth, her parents welcomed her elder sister Fadzai who was also born deaf.

“The family uses Sign language dialects from America, South Africa and some signs which we have created as a family. Fadzai and I were very active in teaching them because we hate it when people write down messages on paper to communicate instead of signing,” she explained.

Deaf is not dumb

Chikiwa, who has a diploma in Graphics Design and Web Development, highlighted this amongst the pet hates which she comes across from the hearing community.

“I also hate it when people in the hearing community think that deaf people cannot have a job, go to university or even own a car or a house. Sometimes they also think that deaf people are like monkeys when they refer to us as ‘deaf and dumb’. That is something that I cannot accept from people.

“Deaf people and those who are able to hear are the same human beings. Not different. We use sign and they talk with their lips,” she said.

She herself is a testimony of how people in the deaf community are not limited by their inability to hear when it comes to education.

Chikiwa has attended both hearing and schools for the deaf, including the Gallaudet university in the USA for English Language Institutions.

A place called home

She considers the UFS as a safe haven for people who, like herself, are deaf.

“I like the environment on campus because of the good service. We have interpreters, labs and support services through the Disability office at our disposal.

“I also appreciate effort and support from hearing students who are interested in deaf culture, especially the ones who study Sign Language. I hope that more Deaf students join our community next year,” she said.

In her eyes, deaf culture lies at the heart of each deaf community in the globe and it allows the group to share a common heritage.

“Sign language is the influenced by a set of social beliefs, behaviour, values and shared institutions of communities that are influenced by deafness,” she said.

Creating Awareness

Acting chairperson and lecturer at the Department of South African Sign Language, Susan Lombaard, said that the importance of events such as the picnic with the Rector is to provide a platform of communication.

“The theme for this year is ‘With Sign Language Rights, Our Children Can!’. It’s important that top management is aware of the needs of Deaf students on campus. Inviting learners from the Bartimea School for the Deaf also acts as motivation for them -that they can do anything they set their minds to,” she said.

Deaf awareness month, according to Lombaard, also offers an opportunity for the hearing community to become aware of things which act as communication barriers.

“A few myths prevent the hearing community from understanding deaf people, especially in communities into which they are born. Many deaf learners I know are not able to lip read or understand the languages in their communities. They don’t even identify themselves racially or culturally but according to values and cultures of their deaf communities. They exist as a cultural group and sign Language is their mother tongue,” she explained.

A recent conference she attended allowed her to assess the state of the deaf community in South Africa compared to those in other countries.

“I realised that South Africa is actually on par with other deaf communities in Europe and America. We still have a long way to go though. Sign Language has been added as an official language in schools and the next step is making it one of the official languages in the country. This will enable the deaf community to have full access to information,” she said.

The monthly programme includes a fundraising awareness concert for Miss Deaf South Africa finalist, Elrie du Toit, and a fun walk on campus.

There will also be a church service for Deaf people on 13 September at the Dutch Reformed Church in Langenhovenpark. The deaf choir from Bartimea School for the Deaf will be performing.

All photos by Tebogo Chabangu