Change, sometimes, starts from an unlikely place.
For the Deaf Outreach Program (DEAFOP) in Embu County, it started with an initiative to plant trees. The ‘Adopt-a-Tree’ project at St Luke’s School for the Deaf meant each pupil tasked with taking care of a tree seedling as part of their work in the environmental conservation club.
The seedlings, bought with funding from the M-Pesa Foundation in 2016, saw the school grow a surplus of seedlings they then shared with neighbouring regular schools. That gesture changed the perception of the community on disability.
“When we shared about 500 tree seedlings with the five neighbouring schools, the community was shocked because, more often than not, we are deemed to be the ones to seek help,” says Michael Nyaga, a teacher at St Luke’s.
But that was not the only novel thing that came out of the environmental project.
As the pupils at St Luke’s tended to their trees and interacted in the project, they begun sharing stories about issues affecting them.
A disturbing revelation emerged.
Some pupils shared they were experiencing sexual abuse by people well known to them. It became evident that there was a need for a new platform—the health club—where the pupils went through lessons to know what is and how to report sexual abuse and assault.
“This promoted communication using sign language between teachers, parents and the pupils. They are now aware and alert regarding some of the dangers their children are likely to face while at home,” says Anne Gloria, DEAFOP’s programs director.
That was four years ago.
The lessons from the tree planting exercise and the health club paved the path for DEAFOP to begin generating content for and by the deaf community to address some of their concerns.
“We create films and mobile applications that are all in sign language with the aim of educating and to entertain,” Anne Gloria says.
Currently, DEAFOP focuses on education in learning institutions for the deaf to help improve the quality of education, while at the same time promoting gender inclusion and sexual health reproductive rights.
The organization in 2019 launched a mobile phone application, ‘SRHR–Sign Language App’, available on Google Play Store for Android devices, that offers sexual health reproductive rights information in sign language.
The motivation to build the one-of-a-kind app came from a yawning lack of information on important health issues among the deaf. The World Health Organization estimates that over 400 million people are deaf, and 800,000 of them live in Kenya, relying on hearing aids and sign language to communicate.
Denis Mugambi, one of the brains behind the app, is deaf. The app currently has 35 videos, each approximately five minutes long, that one can choose to download and save on a mobile phone.
The developers have also incorporated information regarding Covid-19 to help the hearing-impaired access crucial information to avoid the ongoing pandemic. For those who have hearing difficulties, the same content is available in PDF format.
Beyond the app, DEAFOP produced the eight-episode film titled City Girl that highlights the day-to-day challenges that a deaf person faces. It is done in sign language.
“We are keen to promote sign language use by creating content in sign language and addressing issues in the language that our target audience understands best,” says Gloria.
When the television drama series premiered on Signs TV, a niche broadcasting station that mainly targets people living with disabilities, it helped launch the careers of some of the cast members, among them Videlis Njuki, a 27-year-old who lost her hearing as a child following the 1998 bomb blast.
Videlis plays Eva in the drama series and secured a job at Signs TV station as a presenter.