He could not even hear his name called out when he graduated from the University of Malawi last month. That, of course, was not an issue for Temwani Mkandawire. Having fought many battles as a deaf person, the graduation was a time to celebrate and jubilate. For people like Temwani and pupils at Embangweni School for the Deaf, everyday is a battle as they try to convince a skeptical society that they are as good as the next person. Bright Mhango tells their story.
He is not the first; there have been many disabled achieversâ€”Steve Wonder, Michael Yekha or Paulo Ngâ€™ondola, the poliomyelitis farmer from Kawaliwali in Ntchisiâ€”but Temwani Mkandawireâ€™s story stands out to be counted.
Last month, as the University of Malawi graduated its crop, there was one student who did not hear his name called out or the cheers that followed. But he graduated anyway.
Temwani, 26, is completely deaf. He cannot detect even the loudest of bangs, unless they come in the form of a big vibration.
While doing his Standard Five at Mpalale Primary School in Dedza at the age of 10, he was struck by meningitis which robbed him of his hearing ability.
Temwani soldiered on; not only did he go ahead with his studies, he also did it perfectly: Chitumbuka, English and sign languages.
He not only learned how to write these languages, but also to pronounce their words to a 98 percent precision.
While doing his secondary school at Chayamba Secondary School in Kasungu, Temwani fell in love with computers.
â€œI naturally crave to uncover what makes something tick. That is what compelled me to do information technology,â€ said Temwani
He finally got selected to The Malawi Polytechnic to â€œuncover the secrets behind the smart machine we call computer,â€ as he put it.
Abruptly losing his hearing ability is not the only hurdle Temwani has faced. In secondary school, he had to learn alongside normal students, unlike the special treatment he and others received in primary school.
â€œThat is the reason many disabled students donâ€™t do well. Being accustomed to special needs teachers in primary school, disabled students find it challenging in secondary schools where they are no longer taught with the help of special needs teachers,â€ he said.
Temwani completed a tough science degree owing to hard work and a helping hand from his lecturers, classmates and friends who offered handouts, off-class sessions and group discussions.
Â To his fellow disabled, he exhorts them to work hard to get into the university.
Â â€œThey just need moral and material support and a reminder that they have what it takes and if they work hard, they can realise their full potential,â€ said a calm, smiling Temwani.Â
As for his potential, Temwani has been communications director of a student group Poly-Say-Aids, has completed a degree and has beaten the mentality that disability is equal to inability.
Temwaniâ€™s story is hard to come by. There are some deaf students in Malawian colleges, but the general reception is still below par and for some, even primary school is only a dream.
Embangweni School for the Deaf
This is one of the five schools in Malawi that are trying to educate deaf children. It was opened in 1994 and currently has 187 students.
Head teacher of the school, Macloud Hara, says the school takes preschoolers and deals with them up to 14 years.
â€œThe first four years we teach communication skills and simple mathematics and the other 10 years is primary level. Those who do well in academics go on to secondary school; those who are bad at academics are taught tailoring and carpentry,â€ said Hara.
Teachers at the school received regular training, then topped it up with special needs education training.
The students have to be dropped and picked by their guardians and the hostels are manned by house mothers who attend to their many needs, including solace after a nightmare.
In the knitting class, which is taught by 22-year-old Koto Nishiura, a volunteer from Japan, it is amazing how a lesson can progress without a single significantly coherent sound being made.
Each one of the students and the teacher relies on visuals.
To summon Tamara, whose name means â€œWe are finishedâ€ if translated literary, Koto has to run her hand across her throat as if to slice itâ€¦
Among the 20 or so students in the knitting class sits Caroline Nyirongo. Her parents brought her all the way from Mzuzu to see her get an education.
To see if the child actually understands abstract concepts like God, I asked the deputy head teacher to ask her who the mother of Jesus is. Caroline gestured â€˜Mary,â€™ without much ado.
Caroline then said, or rather showed that she would one day like to become a nurse.
Would the nursing college take her in? Is government doing anything to rope in people such as little Caroline into the system?
Those are questions whose answers are easy to decode by looking at the public expenditure on the disabled or walking into any collegeâ€™s lecture session.
The will is there, though.
Hara said the school plans to build a secondary school for the deaf next to the primary and pre-schoolâ€¦but the construction is heavily reliant on donor funding.
Hara also bemoaned the lack of special need teachers which he said in impeding the advancement of deaf people in Malawi.
The children have to be fed on government money which Hara concedes is not enough.
One student from the school is at The Malawi Polytechnic and is a huge asset to the students at the institution as he comes to teach during holidays.
Hara says he might be a big asset in piloting the secondary school project.
Pupils who do well in primary school have to go and join the rest of the Malawian children to compete for about a 1 500 beds at both University of Malawi and Mzuzu University combined.
Temwani implored the University of Malawi and government to prepare for diverse students by checking its infrastructure, intake requirements for his kind and to commission career talks for disabled students.
Temwani beat the education system trap; now is the time for Caroline and her friends to wage the battle.
If they win, they will join Temwani in trying to convince the world that they are as good as the next person.