“Mama Kalo! Mama Kalo!” (Kalo is the way the children say Carol). I heard the children’s voices calling my name but it took a moment to figure out where they came from. I was, after all, walking home to the guest house at the end of a day at the Embangweni School for the Hard of Hearing and hearing my name called was not something I expected. The children there are making unbelievable strides in spoken and sign language but until 2004 few had ever had the courage to actually speak aloud to me. “Mama Kalo!” Finally I localized the calls and spotted two of the preschool girls waving frantically from the athletic field some 30 yards distant. I waved back and signed “See you tomorrow – good night”. More kids on the porch of the hostel signed “good night” as I passed and the dusty road back home somehow shortened and the heat became less intense. The kids are actually using language! Unless you are a speech pathologist who has been working since 1997 to provide communication for these deaf children, the importance of that sentence may escape you. In its 10th anniversary year, the school has become a shining example for the rest of Malawi. Deaf children are no longer regarded as “patients”. It is no longer assumed they cannot learn. The oldest students can use 4 languages: Chitumbuka, English, Chewa, and Chitumbuka Sign. They also do a pretty good job of understanding my English Sign. Indeed, the deaf speak!
Although I was on the second MMM team for 2004, I was not actually working on the shallow wells program. It was my delight to spend each day at the deaf school where I have been volunteering on-and-off since 1997. Marion Medical Mission has provided assistance for the school since it began in 1994 – funds for school blocks and teacher houses, hearing aids, supplies and emergency cash for basic needs such as food. Sometimes I wonder if the first sentence taught to the children is “Thank you Marion Medical Mission”! The staff and children are really grateful for all the help. In 2004 we had the joy of distributing 42 solar powered hearing aids and watched as the very first amplified sounds brought dropped jaws, wide-open eyes and broad grins to faces of students. Of course, we also heard the squeals of poorly seated aids which can drive a hearing person crazy! One gets used to it eventually and it becomes background just like the calling of the pied crows and the herons around the guest house.
Over the past seven years that I have been going to Malawi, I have watched the deaf school grow from 42 students to the present 130. Those 42 in 1997 were almost totally without a communication system, except for a few who had become deaf after acquiring language. They were all in preschool classes – learning that sounds mean something and that those odd marks on the chalkboard mean the same thing as a picture as a sound. There was no sign language. Morning chapel was a silent half-hour spent with teachers talking and singing the hymns with the kids staring off into space, unable to understand what was going on. What a difference in 2004! Now there are four preschool classes and primary school through Standard 7. The school uses the same curriculum as any other school in Malawi; teaching uses a combination of spoken language, sign language and any other means a teacher can come up with!
Morning chapel is a delight! At least once a week, chapel is led by one of the oldest students. S/he reads scripture, delivers a short message (and boy! Do some of them “preach it, brother!” ) and calls on other students or staff to lead prayers and sign the hymns. One of the two school handbell choirs may play; the older student choir sometimes provides an introit song. Any student from the youngest up can volunteer to lead a prayer. The littlest ones keep it simple: “Thank you mama. Thank you food. Thank you teacher. Amen.” What beautiful signs those are! I took it as a wonderful sign of growth when the oldest kids began to take fiendish delight in asking Mama Kalo to sign a hymn or do a prayer. They know my Chitumbuka sign is still severely limited and my spoken Chitumbuka even worse! But how lovely that they are comfortable enough to put me on the spot!
If you have not yet spent time with MMM in Malawi, please give it prayerful consideration. It will be, as Tom always reminds us, a special time. It will not be just like home and there will be moments when you are hot, dirty, tired and frustrated. There will be more moments when you will be brought to your (mental) knees in gratitude and awe at the incredible outpouring of love you will feel from the Malawian people. Every shallow wells team has a whole portfolio of such stories. Let me close with one of my own from the deaf school.
It was the final day of the 2004 season and I was at the last school chapel. After chapel, Mr. Hara (deputy headteacher), explained in sign to the kids that this was Mama Kalo’s last day and she was going back to America. Some of the Standard 7 kids signed “But we have 2 more weeks of term. She should stay until we go home.” Mr. Hara continued in sign: “Are you happy?” Loud cries of “yayi!!” (No!) Several kids signed “sad” and Mr. Hara asked “Why?” One of the older girls stood and signed “because we love her.” That’s the way to break an old gogo’s heart. It is also what keeps bringing me back – hoping for even more calls of “Mama Kalo!” coming from the athletic field.