It is a Monday morning with a light drizzle and scores are seen reporting back for work after the weekend. Development Finance Company of Uganda Bank (dfcu), Kampala Road Branch in the heart of the city, is buzzing with activity like any other workplace.
The bright hall is filled with sounds from bill counters, clicks and keyboards being rattled. Business looks smooth as clients pile in for services from bankers seated behind glass partitions labelled with numbers.
The bubbly teller’s workstation has the digit four inked above, white and black patterns dominate her attire and she comes off as one having another good day at work.
Flavia Grace Nantairo was born deaf but has worked in the bank for the last 12 years; the eight under Crane Bank and four with dfcu Bank. “Handling money and serving customers gives me joy. I love every day I spend on my job and I thank God who has blessed me,” Nantairo says through Nancy Buwangala Katumba, a professional sign language interpreter, who keenly watches Nantario’s sign language before replicating it in audio.
The two will keep exchanging signs with hands and other movements, including facial expressions and body postures through the interview.
Nantairo has made the bank a second home and fits in well. Not even her inability to hear or speak has got in her way. A few metres away is David, the chief teller, who Nantairo approaches to demonstrate how comfortable she is with fellow employees. They exchange signs from time to time.
“I never feel out of place. If people ignored, hated or looked down on me, it would have been a problem. But my workmates are friendly. We communicate very well and many of them have learnt sign language,” she says.
At the age of six, Nantairo would only point at things, but she used to see her siblings and other people moving their lips to express themselves. “I made attempts to communicate through speech. Many times I tried to move my mouth to speak but people could not understand me. I later realised it was pointless to speak,” she explains.
During that time, her mother had her handed over to a paternal aunt living in Entebbe after the father left the country. The aunt started picking up the pieces by teaching her words such as mummy, daddy and papa, as a foundation to grasp the lip-reading skill, which is vital in communication.
In Entebbe, Nantairo was the eldest child in a household of four other girls, who all hear and speak, but they had to learn sign language to help her blend in.
Nantairo started school at Ntinda School for The Deaf that has been in existence since 1959. It was established by the Uganda Society for the Deaf. It is here that she did primary education and excelled.
The pursuit for secondary education led her to Mumias School for The Deaf in Kakamega, western Kenya, for four years, thanks to the Ntinda School for The Deaf headteacher, who bankrolled the arrangement.
On returning to Kampala, Nantairo started searching for jobs but it would take a while for her to secure one. To keep her busy and earning something, her aunt convinced Nantairo’s father, who was in the UK to buy her a knitting machine. This training gave her the opportunity to make sweaters for sale. It is a skill her aunt passed on to her growing up. They both worked together and sold sweaters in Banda market, neighbouring schools and friends. Everything was falling into place and she even started training students with hearing impairments in knitting back at Ntinda School for The Deaf.
Even with income coming from the training and knitting of sweaters, Nantairo longed for more. Her dream was to put her skills into practice some day. “One day I came across a Crane Bank job advert and I applied. I was called for an interview and days later, my aunt received a call from the bank notifying her that I had got the appointment. “Flavia got the job,” said a voice from the other end of the call. It was news worth celebrating and I looked forward to a whole new working experience,” she recounts.
Her computer literacy and data entry training transformed her into a professional banker. Nantairo has embraced her life and would never trade it for one where she would hear and speak. “I have never imagined what life would have been because I am happy this way. I don’t want anyone to ever make me feel like I am less or I miss something,” she shares.
Her condition does not trouble her because she knows people who hear and talk, but have not been as lucky as herself. The fact that people approach her and express interest in learning sign language gives Nantairo the satisfaction that she is adding value to this world. Her workmates too chip in whenever need arises. She feels complete and has proved this by executing her duties professionally, every single day she walks into the banking hall, for more than a decade.
Nantairo is married to Nicholas Nsubuga with three children; two girls and a boy. All the children are fluent signers because their mother tongue is sign language, despite the fact that they can hear and speak.
One of her worst nightmares came in 2017, when the Central Bank took control of Crane Bank. The latter was undercapitalised and deemed no longer fit to run. The Central Bank handed over Crane bank to dfcu and fortunately, Nantairo did not lose her job.
“She is polite, a good time manager, who executes her assignments with the highest degree of professionalism,” says Chandrashekhar Salian, the branch manager of dfcu Bank, Kampala Road.
Nantairo’s occupation as a teller puts her in line between banking services and customers on a daily basis. Her day-to-day duties include processing deposits, withdrawals and issuing money orders or cashier’s checks, among others. She can handle up to 100 transactions through her till on a busy day.
With all those numbers involved, challenges or errors may occur, making the job difficult at times. She recalls one particular day when her error could have seen the bank lose about Shs30m.
“I was afraid, cried and thought they were going to lock me up in jail. I was asking myself where I was going to get that amount of money,” Nantairo recalls.
When an error happened
The dfcu Bank solidarity came into play as her workmates helped her out of the abyss and fortunately for her, money was recovered. Another challenge comes when the bank systems lag or go down. This makes her sad and worried.
A teller’s day gets more tasking towards the end. It is when they are required to evaluate the day’s transactions. The money in one’s till has to correspond with that in the system to ensure books are balanced.
Nantairo’s best part of the day is when her books balance and she hates it when things do not add up after a busy day. “Whenever I balance well, I go home a very happy person. But when things aren’t balancing, you have to stay behind. But I love the teamwork here because people always support each other in such situations,” she discloses.
Most societies in Uganda have left out deaf children and people as some believe it is a curse. Some parents give up on their deaf children while others refer to them using derogatory terms thus giving them no chance at life.
According to the Global Survey Report of the World Federation for the Deaf Regional Secretariat for Southern and Eastern Africa, 60 per cent of the deaf population in Uganda is illiterate.
It is projected that there are more than 300,000 deaf children in Uganda with only 10 per cent of the deaf children enrolled in the Uganda Primary Education programme.
Because of the lack of a reliable system of early diagnosis of the hearing impairment in children, deaf children who are lucky to study join school much later.
Nantairo’s case is a peculiar one as she has had an incredible support system that has got her where she is today. It is not just about whoever came through for her but the focus and desire to be an achiever drove her there. She wants more stories like hers out there, where girls and boys with hearing impairments are making it to the top.
More role models needed
“They should look at me as a role model, they may not work in the bank but could have other skills that can transform them socially and economically,” she advises.
Not only the deaf, but the youth have a tendency to look down on opportunities, which Nantairo thinks haunts them in future. “Many deaf girls do not want tailoring or to try out other vocational skills. I work in the bank but I also have the knitting skill,” she adds.
Nantairo believes that such skills will bail one out even if they do not get that much coveted office job. She badly wants to see the deaf break the shackles to the extent of wishing another deaf girl replaces her at dfcu in the event that she leaves. In her free time, Nantairo goes out swimming, and she also loves socialising with her friends.
She wants to build on her knitting skills in future.
“I would love to make a fashion company, work with other people with hearing impairments in order to gain economic independence. We can make many products and export them to other,” she says.
Nantairo has no regrets and remains happy with how her life has panned out. She, however, dreams of a time when deaf children will be exposed to better opportunities.