A dirty path branches off Mukono Town to Hand-in-Hand Special Needs Education Centre, a non-governmental organisation that has a vocational training wing and a primary school.
The school offers an inclusive education with special needs education for children with hearing impairment.
The team leader, Mr Stephen Odeker, welcomes one with a smile and is particular with the attire that staff members wear, African print, pink and black with stripe designs to accentuate the art and craft that the vocational institute has in tie and dye, as a part of their training.
In the school compound, about 20 children are engaged in various activities including weaving and knitting while others learn how to mix the chemicals that make liquid soap in a large blue bucket.
The teacher talks and uses gestures for those with hearing impairment.
Emmanuel Mucunguzi, 13, joins the group, but retreats to a swing later.
He is a tailoring student in his second year. Mucunguzi has hearing difficulties and uses mainly gestures to communicate.
His first interaction with the NTV sign language interpreter, Ms Susan Mujjawa, got a cold reaction. Ms Mujjawa later realised that Mucunguzi was not understanding her signs. After one-and-a-half years of school closure, he had not attended formal learning that teaches sign language.
He had difficulties remembering signs and gave up on the conversation with Susan who was basically asking about his name, age, where he lives, who his friends were and what he does during the day now that schools are closed.
To ease the mood, Daily Monitor decided to involve the school teacher, Mr Odeker. Mucunguzi opened up and in just a minute, he was using gestures and able to express himself.
What Ms Mujjawa did not know is that the boy has difficulties interacting with strangers and he needed self-esteem boost.
“When I am at home, I often think of school. I often ask my mother to call the teachers so that I can come to school. I am not happy being at home because my mother restricts me a lot. I think of my school head teacher and want to be at school,” Mucunguzi says through the head teacher as the sign language interpreter.
With heads held up high and gesturing faster than he did at the beginning of the conversation, Mucunguzi says: “I want to come back to school so that I can continue learning tailoring. In the morning, I cleaned the compound, then I do the dishes. I later go to the garages to see people repair. Sometimes I go to see those who are doing construction work. I also stay in the nearby washing bay. At times, I help them to do some work, but they do not give me any money.”
After the conversation with Mucunguzi, Mr Odeker leads the Nation Media Group (NMG), Daily Monitor and NTV team to another child who lives about 20 minutes’ drive from the school in Kyetume, Mukono District.
Blessing Atwijuka runs to welcome him with a hug. The communication between the two is broken as the face mask hides facial expressions. Later, the teacher removes the masks and the smiles and laughter are visible with other expressions.
It was a joy to watch the little girl try to say so much to our team, but only Ms Mujjawa and her school teachers could understand her. At some point, Ms Mujjawa could not sustain the conversation because Atwijuka was saying so much using gestures best known in her home settings, but the teachers could understand her.
Ms Mujjawa had to get interpretations of the gestures from the teachers to understand what she was saying. Her mother and father are equally struggling to sign and can only use basic gestures to maintain brief conversations with him.
Atwijuka’s four other siblings do not sign so she only gestures. She wishes to read and write so that she can communicate better with others both at home and in the community.
“I am asking her where her mother is, but she does not understand. When I ask how old she is, she is telling me that she is 67. Basically, what blessing uses to communicate is gestural and she has forgotten the formal sign language she learnt from school,” Mr Odeker says.
Ms Mujjawa says as she tries to engage her in another conversation about school and her teachers. Her school teacher, Mr Baker Damulira, joins the conversation and the excitement is all over her face, undisguised. Mr Damulira switches between gestures and sign language to maintain the flow of their conversation. This, her parents cannot do, which makes it difficult for her to express herself.
Atwijuka was in Primary One in March 2020 when schools were closed. Unfortunately, even when schools were momentarily reopened in November 2020, other classes reported, but her class was yet to report during the phased reopening before schools were closed again to date due to a surge in covid-19 country wide. Since June, 2021, all learning institutions have closed and learning shifted online.
For children like Atwijuka, online learning remains a myth not just because her parents cannot afford the gadgets and Internet costs, but that would require hiring the services of a sign language interpreter to sit through the classes with her since the lessons are designed for the hearing.
It would cost between Shs50,000 to Shs100,000 to have a sign language interpreter sit with her through the learning for a day.
“What we are doing as teachers to help these children learn from home is not enough. Because we have many children and we are few who teach in sign language. Maybe the government could help us with resources and teach parents to learn sign language so that they can communicate well with their children,” says Mr Damulira.
Ms Deborah Nabakiibi, an Accounting and Finance final year student at Kyambogo University, is lucky to have a family that embraced sign language while she was young. She is able to interact with her mother and other family members at their home in Seeta, Mukono, in sign language.
Whereas she has all the support she needs, she has not been able to attend online classes.
“You try to connect and the network is bad. Because most of the classes we use Zoom, the audio is bad, the video keeps dropping because the connection is bad. The data is expensive and yet you have to also get a sign language interpreter, which is very expensive too,” Ms Nabakiibi signs saying her interpreters find it difficult to follow through the class and make her understand the lessons.
Ms Joyce Nalugya, a consultant psychiatrist at Mulago National Referral Hospital and the mother to Deborah, says even with her level of education, she cannot teach her child because her field is different from hers.
“I am not a teacher. I did not study the things Deborah is studying. It will require me to read the books of accounting,” she said, adding that deaf children require special attention even from their teachers to understand and comprehend what is taught in class.
But she adds that informal home learning must happen if the formal learning has become a hurdle for parents of deaf children.
“Every child needs love. We involved Deborah in all our family settings and activities at an early age and everyone at home learnt sign language to be able to communicate with her,” Dr Nalugya says, emphasising that the family can play their part in informal learning, but in formal education, parents have limitations.
Mr Odeker says the school closure has limited learning for deaf children.
“There has been less or no learning for the time they have been at home. The whole aspect of inclusiveness requires total embrace by the family as we wait for the government to reopen schools,” Mr Odeker says.
Mr Robert Nkwangu, the executive director of Uganda National Association of the Deaf, spoke to the NMG team from his office in Kiwanga, Wakiso District, through an interpreter. He uses sign language to communicate.
“At home, there is no teacher who is skilled in sign language. Children learn better when they are together with their peers who know sign language and they can support each other,” Mr Nkwangu says with emphasis on family members trying their best to interact with and support them when learning materials are sent to them at home.
Mr Alex Ndeezi, the Member of Parliament Representing Persons with Disabilities says covid-19 vaccination is the only way to enable deaf children to return to class.
Recently, Ms Janet Museveni, the Minister for Education, directed that all teachers and learners in upper classes should be vaccinated as plans for another phased reopening of schools are underway.
She did not specify when schools would reopen and the plans for lower primary who have been home for the longest time during the coronavirus period.