Dora Nyirenda was born healthy, but everything changed when her father died in 2009.
“She stopped talking and just wept silently,” says her mother Lufina Theu, 43.
She recalls mistaking her six-year-old daughter’s usual silence for trauma given the shock of losing her father. Now 12, Dora still says no word, hears nothing and struggles to communicate with her friends. She reacts violently when others give her a cold shoulder.
“When I noticed she was not just dumb but deaf as well, I knew there was a problem,” said the mother of three, who lives in Zabaguba Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mzikubola, in Mzimba.
In the rural setting, Dora quit school to seek medical assistance while she was in Standard Two at Ruviri Primary School. Despite the long distance to Mzimba District Hospital, health workers could neither trace the cause nor find the cure of her impairment—only telling the mother to refer the girl to a special need’s school.
“I visited several places, including traditional healers, believing some people had bewitched my daughter,” she says.
After some time, Dora enrolled back to Ruviri Primary School, where she still struggles to communicate with her peers.
Dora’s situations mirrors the struggles thousands of young Malawians with disabilities have to surmount to attain education. Estimates show there are nearly 7 500 deaf children and young Malawians who face barriers to access education, vocational training, healthcare information and economic activity and participation in public life.
As the country’s education system grapples with challenges that exclude learners with disabilities, pushing them into poverty, little Dora found herself back at Ruviri having failed to secure a place at Embangweni School of the Hearing Impaired because the institution was overcrowded.
“I Informed the teachers of her predicament,” Theu recalls her daughter’s return to the remote school where she progressed up to Standard Five with no hearing aids and skilled teachers for special needs learners.
Dora, who was later diagnosed of profound hearing condition, got her first hearing aids when the Livingstonia Synod launched deaf awareness community trainings to promote inclusive education.
The intervention, being implemented in Mzimba, Rumphi, Karonga and Chitipa, is gradually changing the mindset of communities on children with hearing challenges. It is also helping to increase access to education facilities.
According to project manager Bonfac Massa, the initiative has identified 1 035 disadvantaged learners both in and out of school.
“There are some learners in schools who have the condition without knowing it and there are others in the communities that were being denied the chance to go to school because of their condition,” said Massa.
The trainings targeted teachers, community members, parents as well as the affected children on how to handle and take care of learners with hearing gaps.
“We trained the communities because we noticed that many look at affected children as incapable of doing anything productive. We wanted to change that,” says Massa.
Theu is happy because the hearing aids have changed her daughter’s life. Six others received the props.
Her school performance is also getting better, says the mother.
“I now know how to take care of her, especially her ears, giving her nutritious foods and helping other parents in the same condition as mine,” she explained.
Ruviri Zone chairperson Chancy Leonard Nkhoswe said many children have been assisted through the trainings and the way communities looked at these children is changing.
Ruviri Zone primary education adviser Betty Tchongwe is happy that the teacher-learner relationship is also improving.
“Previously, we did not fully realise its importance but, from the results, we have seen that the project is helping teachers to reach out to all learners, with or without disability,” Tchongwe said.
Eight schools that did not have learners with hearing impairment in the past now enrol them.
“Most parents are now sending their children to school and teachers are able to relate to these learners,” she explained.
One of the teachers, Joshua Chirwa, said teaching an inclusive class requires that children with hearing impairment sit in front and that they are offered extra lessons when there is need.
Chirwa further says the learners are increasingly gaining confidence by participating in class activities.
“Before, we did not know that putting those pupils with hearing challenges helps them have direct and close contact with the teacher. Now we have seen a change in the performance with the new interventions,” he said.
The milestones achieved are being eroded by how some learners treat their peers with hearing problems.
Livingstonia Synod plans to sensitise all learners against such practices to create an enabling learning environment for all, Massa said.
Still, Scottish member of Parliament (MP) Andy Kerr, who finances the project, believes the training is effective.
“Education is a birthright for all. The physically challenged also need to have access to quality education,” said Kerr, a former minister of Finance in his country.