Sign Language: fate of Gambia’s “forgotten” minority language

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Hail a Bakau back-way commercial van at Westfield and as the driver twist its wheels heading for the MDI road, you notice a billboard, to the right, at the junction with few words that reads: “Sign Language is our natural language, it is one of the Gambian languages and you too can learn it”.

Every language in The Gambia, Mandinka, Serahule, Wollof, Fula, Jola, Serere, Manjago and others have enjoyed their share on the population and they are not just recognized as national languages but are used by various news media to communicate important national information to whoever understands them—  hard of hearing have far too long being an exception.

These were the thoughts of Binta Badgie, 23, a barely known rights activist for Gambians hard of hearing, young and old, who have struggle for decades to not just be recognized but to hear and be heard, an information gap created by the ‘nation and its people’s refusal to understand their ways of communication’.

‘Does it ever ring in the conscience of this nation that sign language is also a distinct language that is used by a few of its population as a medium of communication like other languages?’ Badgie wonders

She believes their plight is best understood when one thinks of a scenario when he or she will have to go about asking people what his or her President said after an hour speech or about a press release on an issue of national relevance read on the national television.

 “It will be great if sign language can also be recognised as a national language! If Mandinka, Wollof, Serer, Jola and so on are national languages, why not sign language? It’s so terrible that we have a many educated people and university graduates who cannot sign a single word!” she observed.

“And the media could as well be very helpful. The Gambia Radio and Television Services should also introduce sign language in its news cast for the deaf people to understand what is being said. It’s not difficult to sign. It’s a necessity! It’s funny that we have the ministry of information and communication! Does the minister know about sign language?”

Badgie was not born with her hearing complications— she had the problem at 8 years while she was at nursery school following a sickness she suffered for an unspecified period which prompted her parents to take her to St Johns School for the deaf.

With barely any learning aids except occasional help from teachers and friends, she would excel beyond expectations of a society, she said, still thinks “deaf are brain-dead” and would book a place to study arts at Nusrat High School ending her grade 12 with 6 credits and a fail in one subject, mathematics.

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A teacher at St Johns and now studying at the American International University, Badgie and her educated colleagues have mobilized themselves to help other people living with their similar complications.

“One of my main focuses now is the deaf women and girls. Most of them live a hard life. They are discriminated against, left illiterate or semi literate and abused and so on.

I work together with a group of women who all share the same goals and objectives. We want to fight for the rights of deaf women and girls and empower them through cooperation, networking and literacy programs,” she revealed.

“Deaf and other disable people deserve a better life like any other normal people. Let me tell you that that they are normal people as well. Like I love to say, deafness was never a tragedy. It’s just a different way of life, a different way of living. No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness. Deaf and other disables deserve to be what they aspire to be. People of this country need to be more open and positive minded towards disable people and the government should do more to help them.”

Badgie made an emotional appeal to parents with disable children to send them to school and also berated the “stereotypical view society has of the disables.

“What do you say when parents of deaf children hide them at home until they are past school going age then bring them to St. John’s? It’s started with some parents thinking that disabled children cannot go to school. Sometimes my friends and I are charged double price at the markets because we are deaf. Some people see us as beggars while others just don’t count us, outright! I know some deaf who are paid less for their work than other people whereas they work more than those people,” she said.

“It’s easy for us to lip read sometimes what people say (the ones who are not born deaf) people saying that we are mute…The other day someone asked me how I learn at the university! This shows how little most people know about disables because I use a braille machine! That was the most stupid question I ever encountered!”

Badgie recounted her difficult but failed attempt to secure a place at the University of the Gambia with a fail in mathematics, arguing she “understood the rule but not the logic behind it– not everyone is a mathematician!”

The hard of hearing have little academic aids in the country and here is how Badgie recounted her first days at Nusrat, especially the complications she has had to deal with understanding mathematics, oral English and science practical.

“With my friend and all those helpful people there, I felt I could do anything. A female friend was with me. She learned signs just to communicate with me. She interpreted things to me either by writing or signing. But there were limits. She couldn’t make me hear the oral English exam and neither makes me hear and memorise the scientific terms for practical. I ended up with six credits. A disappointment which was meet with an applause!” she said.

Updated statistics on the number of deaf people in The Gambia are hard to come by.

However, according to The Gambia Deaf Children’s Support Project, conservative estimates shows approximately about 4500-5000 are deaf or hard of hearing in the country though the only scientific study of deafness in The Gambia was carried out in 1985.

This figure is almost the size of a small town in a country where population fall little under 2 million.

The organization though said accurate estimates are not really possible as there has never been any routine hearing assessment screening in place.

“Consequently many people with deafness will never have been diagnosed or treated,” information on the organization’s website explained.

 

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