Juliana Likomba (Nee Mwase), president of the Malawi National Association for the Deaf (Manad), and newly elected spokesperson for the deaf in the Sadc region, on losing her hearing and being entrapped in a world of her own at a tender age, living above her disability and striving to make a difference in the worlds of many.
Were you born deaf?
No, I lost my sense ofÃ‚Â hearing after a short bout of malaria in April, 1983. It was a painful experience considering that never in life had I anticipated that one day I would lose hearing and become a Sign Language user.Ã‚Â
I was in Std 3 then and our class had a passion for music.Ã‚Â I enjoyed dancing and singing (No wonder our class produced one of the best singers on the local scene, Mlaka Maliro).Ã‚Â Ã‚Â The realisation that I was in a strange world, a world of silence made me shed tears each time I failed to grasp what somebody was trying to tell me.
I no longer joined my colleagues in singing but just watched them with admiration. As a child growing up on the shores of Lake Malawi, I liked swimming, going to the mountain to search for fruits and also being a Ã¢â‚¬Ëœborn freeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ during the one party era where we danced during government functions. Suddenly, all this drastically changed.Ã‚Â I felt isolated as I could no longer join my colleagues in doing these things.Ã‚Â
How did the people around you react?
The toughest bit were the squabbles that erupted between my parents. My mum was more understanding. She believed that my hearing loss was just a natural cause while dad was on the contrary.Ã‚Â He believed that I was bewitched and he consulted witchdoctors who tattooed my body and administered different herbs on me but that did not work.
A lot of money was wasted in the process.Ã‚Â My mum took me to various hospitals. AtÃ‚Â Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, I was referred to the Education Centre for the Deaf in Chiradzulu. Here, I underwent audio logical testing and was told that my condition was irreversible.
I was admitted to the centre and enrolled at Montfort Demonstration School. That was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. That same year, my parents divorced and I went to live with my mum. There was a lot of talk among people in our community.Ã‚Â
At school, my fellow peers were a menace.Ã‚Â They would surround me during tea-break and gaze at me as if I were a strange object. SomeÃ‚Â made fun of me.Ã‚Â It was too much for me to handle and I dropped out of school.Ã‚Â I only resumed studies after my mum,Ã‚Â who had the vision and determination of educating me, told me that it as unthinkable for me to just sit at home.Ã‚Â Ã‚Â
Picking up your life must have been challenging…
Being raised by a single parent was the biggest challenge.Ã‚Â There were eight children at that time since dad had decided to walk away, my mother had her hands full.Ã‚Â Ã‚Â
The other challenge is that it was difficult to get audiological services and assistive devices (Hearing Aids and batteries) in hospitals close to home as the services were not readily available. The only medication I got was to have lukewarm water pumped into my ears.
I had to go all the way to Chiradzulu to get services from the Education centre for the Deaf, the only available audiological centre then.Ã‚Â Getting to Chiradzulu was a challenge on its own because we had to use our own resources to travel.
What motivated you to hold on during these challenging times?
I am a God fearing lady, and in whatever I do, Ã‚Â I put God ahead of everything. I always quote the Biblical verse that says Ã¢â‚¬ËœI can do all things through Christ who strengthens meÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ (Phillipians 4:13). I believe that I have a social responsibility towards my colleagues with disabilities in general and the deaf community in particular.
Your late husband was also deaf…
Yes. His name was Elias Likomba (whose biological father is the Balaka based singer Enort Spear Mbandambanda. He adopted the clan name Likomba because he was raised by his grandparents). We were both admitted to the Education Centre for the Deaf and attended the same primary school, besides we came from the same diocese (Mangochi).
As Catholics, our sacraments were given to us by the same bishop, late Bishop Allesandro Assolari.Ã‚Â We had a lot in common.Ã‚Â He lost his hearing abilities at almost the same age and liked singing too. We were just like a brother and sister during our primary school days and started dating in 1998. He died in June 2005.
Losing him was devastating. We had planned to celebrate our youngest daughter, ChrissieÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s birthday which falls on June 27thÃ‚Â together, but their dad died on June 23 and the celebration had to be turned into mourning.Ã‚Â
And you threw yourself deeper into your career…
Yes and despite my hearing problem, I have beaten the odds.Ã‚Â I am educated and I have a job. I am living independently, taking care of my siblings, my own children but above all I advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in general and the deaf in particular.Ã‚Â
I have representedÃ‚Â and spoken at high profile meetings nationally and internationally, which prove that given the chance, people with disabilities can perform wonderfully.
What challenges do deaf people face?
The sign language we use is not recognised by the majority of the population, which means we are left out of a lot of things.Ã‚Â In education, forÃ‚Â example, most deaf people are uneducated or drop out of school not because they are dull but because the method used when teaching is not accessible to them.
The deaf can learn better when taught through sign Language and this is stipulated in the Salamanca Statement of 1994 and UN Convention on the Rights of people with Disabilities Article 24.Ã‚Â And if the Education For All goal is to achieve anything, sign language must be used in the education of the deaf.
information is vital in oneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s everyday life.Ã‚Â However, the deaf are the last to be informed because the mode of disseminating information is not friendly to them. Going to church, finding employment, accessing health information on reproductive health, HIV and Aids and so on as well as representing others in decision making bodies are all challenging for people who are Deaf.
You are the spokesperson for the deaf in the Sadc region…
Yes and it is an honour, considering that I was chosen from a group of 10 Sadc countriesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ representatives. It was inspiring to represent my fellow deaf at high profile meetings, one being in the year 2009 when I was invited to represent my colleagues at a meeting with various donor organisations in Johannesburg, South Africa and later attended mediation talks with Zimbabwe Association of the Deaf in Harare.
The last was the conference of Linguistics Association of Sadc Universities (LASU) held at the National University of Lesotho in Maseru, where I presented a paper on the challenges deaf peopleÃ‚Â in the Sadc region face.Ã‚Â All this has been made possible with funding and support I gotÃ‚Â from the Linguistics Department of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa(Osisa) based in Johannesburg.
What would you want to be changed or revised?
The domestication of the UN Convention on the Rights of people with disabilities is the focal point considering that most states in the Sadc region have ratified the convention but with no implementation strategies on the ground.Ã‚Â
People with disabilities continue to be marginalised. The incorporation of sign language in policies and programmes is also vital for people who are deaf. The absence of laws to protect the rights of people with disabilities is another point.Ã‚Â Take for example here in Malawi; the Disability Bill has stalled for close to six years after its formulation with no sign of its passing soon.
What do you want people to see when they look at you?
I want people to look at me as an ordinary Malawian woman, one with ambition and one who would like to achieve greater goals, a Mrs Likomba (Nee Mwase), a responsible mother and leader not a disabled woman who speaks through sign language.
Did her primary education at Monkey Bay full primary school from 1980 to 1983.
From 1983 to 1991 she attended Montfort Demonstration School where she got selected to Providence Girls Seconday School in Mulanje.
Enrolled with the Polytechnic for secretarial and accounting studies.Ã‚Â
Currently doing management studies through correspondence with Amity University of India.