It’s exam time. The test papers are on each desk. The students have been granted about 10 minutes to internalize the printed requirements.
One of those at what’s usually the back of the class is Paul Mathenge. He’s facing the wall and so are others to his left, right and back. All these students are gesturing, both facially and descriptively as they inaudibly vocalize some expressions.
A class attendant motions one student at a time to the actual front of the examination room to face the next available examiner among the three. This is the only time the students are allowed to look the opposite direction.
The examination is on expressive Kenyan Sign Language (KSL). Sign language is manual and richly visual. Mathenge and his examiner, a lecturer at the Kenya Institute of Special Education (KISE), exchange some greetings and niceties through signing.
“Sign the story below,” is what Mathenge is expected to do. The structure of the KSL is different from that of the English language. Mathenge is to convert the story to KSL.
The alert examiner will be gauging if Mathenge has considerably grasped the KSL and the concepts he’s learned. Mathenge has a maximum of 15 minutes to showcase his competency.
The lecturer smiles as Mathenge concludes his interpretation. She’s satisfied and Mathenge is confident that he’s done well. He’s immediately awarded unknown marks.
Mathenge has been pursuing a certificate in KSL. The course takes three months. When he enrolled for the course, he was introduced to the basic principles of signing. A theory exam was administered.
At the time of meeting him, he’s completed one month. The test he’s undertaken is level 1.
“The exam was good,” he says. “I was required to use the skills and the knowledge I was taught in class.” Two other exams are to follow after every month, levels 2 and 3 respectively.
During expressive examination time, craning one’s neck, or ‘giraffing,’ as the sign language class refers to it, is disallowed. Otherwise, it would be leakage. This is one reason why in the exam room, students appearing before the examiners aren’t to be viewed by those waiting for their turn.
Mathenge is from Nyeri. “In our community, I can meet a person whose mode of communication is sign language. I enrolled in order to be able to communicate with such,” he said.
Trainers at KISE are of the view that the country doesn’t have enough interpreters. Besides, only a few institutions train interpretation.
Mathenge desires to be an interpreter to include the deaf in social activities and assist them in decision-making.
“When you meet people who use their hands to communicate, interacting with such people may be a challenge,” Mathenge says.
As an intermediary between the hearing and the hearing-impaired, he foresees a situation where he might be called upon to offer interpretation services at government offices and forums.
One challenge that he’s had before is that the hearing-impaired may not have understood the signs that he was relaying. The people would indicate to him to repeat the sign. “If you have appropriate skills, misinterpretation will not arise,” he says.
One of the three lecturers who have been assessing Mathenge’s class’ ability to interpret messages is Sally Gakii. She’s been in the department of the hearing impairment and communication disorder for about five years.
“In expressive exam, we look at how the student is able to express his feelings through sign language,” she says. “There’s also the receptive exam where the student observes the assessor or the lecturer sign and the student interprets the sign,” added Gakii.
Mathenge was earlier subjected to the receptive exam. He alongside more than 60 others sat in an expanded hall. A lecturer, on a raised stage executed some signs. The students would render the signs into text.
Through such tests, the assessors are able to have a clear picture of whether the students comprehend the signs being taught. The strengths and weaknesses of the students are judged.
The Head of Department, hearing impaired and communication difficulties at KISE is Dr. Nelius Maina.
“Every sign has four elements,” she says. “The person signing must be able to provide the correct hand shape and palm orientation in relation to the body of the signer. The place of articulation and movement are important too.”
She explains that a sign is not complete unless it’s accompanied with appropriate body language and relevant facial expressions that include eyebrow and head movement.
Confidence and poise are greatly valuable in signing. “If a learner is articulating signs and his hands are shaky, his signs will not be articulated appropriately,” Gakii says. “The signs can give a different meaning,” she notes.
Storing signs in one’s memory might appear intimidating. There’s fear of forgetting a sign during interpretation. In case this happens, then under total communication, Gakii recognizes that finger spelling comes to the rescue.
In a situation where one hand is incapacitated, signing could be done using the able hand, which would be placed, on part of the body or another object such as a table. A passive hand would be deployed.
Just like is applicable to all verbal languages, sign language demands practice. “We encourage our students to try and look for places where they can volunteer,” Gakii says. “You can visit special schools where deaf persons are. You can even practice in church because we are in an inclusive world and interpretation is mandatory.”
British and American English have some notable differences. Similarly, “Sign language has a lot of variation,” Gakii says, as she demonstrates how the deaf community in the coastal region sign ‘mango’ and contrasts it with how it’s done in parts of lower eastern. If a variation weren’t understood, then finger spelling would be sought for clarity.
Regarding regional variation that arises from time to time, the Principal Education Officer in the Directorate of Special Needs Education Sheilah Lutta says, “A team of professionals and teachers agree on harmonization of the signs to ensure uniformity and relevance in signing.”
Languages keep expanding due to new vocabularies or expressions. “If there’s a new word or expression, the sign doesn’t originate with the hearing people,” Gakii says. “The people mandated with the responsibility are the deaf.”
Gakii explains that the deaf initially begin with finger spelling to cover new terms. But the deaf later meet to decide the best sign to represent the expression. For instance, when COVID-19 emerged, its sign, like a bushfire, engulfed the deaf community.
The inset television sign language interpreters mastered it. Gakii divulges that she learned about the sign through television. That is the sign that KISE has been teaching the KSL learners.
Prior to enrolment into a KSL class, an applicant has to be proficient in English and Kiswahili. Bilingualism also exists in sign language. An interpreter may be proficient at Kenyan and American sign languages.
Dr. Maina says KISE offers KSL training to teachers who go back to their schools to teach learners the language. The two-year Diploma courses are in hearing impairment and Deaf-Blind. Three-month certificate courses on fulltime basis are also offered.
“The Kenya National Examinations Council does the assessment to gauge the competency of the trainees, by checking their expressive and receptive skills before sending them back to schools for the deaf,” Dr. Maina says.
Being a member of the deaf community doesn’t necessarily imply that one has to be deaf. An individual might begin to verbally converse with another, only for it to arise that the latter is deaf. Walking away abruptly might engender some awkwardness to both parties.
“It is very important to learn basic sign skills,” Dr. Maina says. “Deaf persons are with us. We go with them to the same school, church and even for those who board at special schools they come back and live with us.”
All regions in the country, following the mapping of the former provincial blocks, have schools that offer hearing impaired learners education. Some of them are Kwale and Mumias School for the deaf and Kerugoya special school.
By William Inganga