We focus on Deaf populations in Africa because myths about Deaf people abound which form the bases of some of the exclusionary practices which shut Deaf people out of the mainstream process. An examples of such myths at play is found in Yoruba theology, where the deity of clarity is Obatala. Among Obatala’s functions, is the molding of human beings for the Supreme Deity of the Yoruba pantheon, Olodumare (also known as Olorun), to breathe life into. Obatala was reportedly drunk on palm wine when he molded humans with disabilities, thereby making Obatala by default also the patron deity of persons with disabilities. In consequence, Obatala forbade his adherents from drinking palm wine (see http://www.godchecker.com/pantheon/african-mythology.php?deity=OBATALA).
It appears common throughout sub-Saharan Africa that a child born with or who later acquires deafness is viewed with suspicion, as such a child may be associated with the wrongs committed by the child itself in a previous incarnation, or the child’s parents or grandparents against God, the gods or ancestral spirits.
Kiyaga and Moores reported, in a study of cultural attitudes towards Deaf people in rural Rwanda and Uganda: “One example of the impact of discrimination occurs in Gitarama, a small town in Rwanda familiar to the lead author of the present article. There, the Deaf live in abject poverty; deaf adults cannot find gainful employment and deaf children have no access to schooling. When the children venture outside their community, they always do so in groups, for self-protection. Stones are thrown at them when they sign to each other and they are labeled ibiragi, a derogatory Kinyarwanda word for deaf people meaning “foolishness.” In Uganda, the lead author’s native country, the word used in one indigenous language to identify the Deaf is kasiru, a term that connotes stupidity. In Ethiopia a common identifier is denkoro, which means “those who cannot be enlightened.” Some people in Ethiopia believe that deaf people are possessed by the devil and must be cured by witchcraft or purifying waters. The application of derogatory labels to the Deaf is, of course, not limited to African languages; the implications of English terms such as deaf mute and deaf and dumb are similarly offensive.
In some African societies, it is common for families to replace a deaf child’s given name and replace it with a generic name, “the deaf one.” Naniwe (1994) reported that in Burundi harmful stereotypes portray deaf individuals as dependent, sick, or tragic victims often subjected to family exclusion and social isolation, with the result that they generally are described by family members as quick tempered and aggressive. Naniwe quoted from an interview with a mother of a deaf child: "When people see a deaf person on the street they have the impression that he is a well person, someone like everyone else. But … he is a brainless person, because you have to feed him, nourish him, dress him. In fact, you have to do everything for him.’ (p. 575)” (See Kiyaga, N; Moores, D. (2003) Deafness in Sub-Saharan Africa; American Annals of the Deaf 148.1 (2003) 18-24)
From the foregoing, the conclusion appears tenable that Deaf people in Africa face more challenges and struggles than persons who are not deaf must face on a daily basis. In fact the language of the Disability Act of Zimbabwe (1996) implies that a sensory disability such as Deafness functions to inhibit persons with a disability from participating at an equal level with other members of society. It defines a person with a disability as:
A person with a physical, mental or sensory disability, including a visual, hearing or speech functional disability, which gives rise to physical, cultural or social barriers inhibiting him from participating at an equal level with other members of society in activities, undertakings or fields of employment that are open to other members of society. (See Disabled Persons Act Chapter 17:01 revised edition, 1996 p. 51)
There are, therefore, two barriers which militate against the full participation of Deaf persons as personally responsible, participatory or justice-oriented citizens: one is fed by myths and shibboleths, the other is fed by the reality that a sensory disability creates a barrier to full participation. Both barriers must be overcome by interventions which are both deliberate and considered.
Our response in designing intentional interventions will be manifested in providing knowledge services through training in pedagogy, leadership, advocacy and promoting educational efforts by developing capacity and designing and constructing libraries, virtual information archives on Deafness, and conducting summer leadership and educational camps for deaf Africans.