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Deaf poets and deaf story tellers —When shall we see their products


There are over four million deaf people in the South African population of fifty million. For the first time in 2018, South African Sign Language was included as a subject in the National Senior certificate examinations equivalent of WAEC and so on. South African Sign Language was recognised by the department of Basic Education as an official home language in 2018. This means that South African Sign Language has the same status as the eleven official languages of the country. It can be taught and leaned to the highest possible levels in the educational system of the country. In this first year of the exams four pupils took Sign language.

A few years ago, there was much uproar in the media because a Sign language news reader messed up the news in Sign language because he was confused or not properly trained or even drunk during the news presentation. Investigations were made to determine how he got to be hired and it was determined that such mess up should never happen again. The occasion was the reporting of the burial ceremonies of the late South African President Nelson Mandela.

Language learnt empowers the learner and provides inclusion for the speaker of such a language. To empower four million people and include them in the vibrant life of South Africa is a great achievement of the South African Basic Education Department.
Yes, the South African educational system has challenges at the level of providing normal, ordinary education for all available learners. We have pupils learning under trees with no decent toilet facilities. We have undergraduates who struggle to cope with the languages of learning having been taught Shakespeare in isi-Zulu but expected to write their answers in English. And we lack adequate numbers of postgraduate students. All of these challenges we acknowledge and hope they would be faced squarely as time goes by. That the educational system has time for Sign Language in the midst of these challenges is what is called progress, empowerment and inclusivity.


Years ago, when Season of Migration to the South was published, I was surprised to be asked to sign a paper for the Braille edition of the book. It is only in South Africa that I have had to sign such a copyright agreement. That is what empowerment and inclusivity means.

Naturally, the South African Sign Language has challenges. In the first place the language has no syllabus. It has had to use the syllabus for the English language. Sign language has its own grammar and structure.

“For the final exam in Sign language, pupils worked in closed-off booths where they watched questions in Sign language before taking videos of themselves signing answers.” “They watch the question, sign the answer and then file it on the laptop.”

For now there are no text books on Sign language as a home language. And there are no former students who had studied South African Sign Language who can pass on their text books and notes to coming students as Ladi did for me at Oyemekun Grammar School Akure and I did for Adele at King’s College Lagos! Like all African home languages Sign language has to begin from the beginning!
Where are the teachers for Sign language?

It is a bit bizarre to think in this connection of the migration of African youth to Europe and North America. Does it occur to us that amid the thousands of Nigerian and African youths fleeing the scourge of un-development are blind youths, deaf youths who are escaping from lives of beggary? Developed countries and developing countries, unlike un-developed countries, provide empowerment and inclusivity to the disabled.

Growing up in Akure, I remember there was a leper colony, a community of leper’s from different languages, outside of the town that spoke Sign language. What became of them when they were moved out of there town? Reminds one of Ola Rotimi’s play Hopes of the Living Dead (1985) where a community of leper’s fought for their right not to be shifted around as the authorities felt like.

The chief executive officer of the South African National Deaf Association, which promotes the rights of deaf people, called the recognition “a major milestone in the consolidation of the rights of deaf people to balanced and accessible education.” All the same the CEO lists the challenges that stand in the way of implementing South African Sign Language as a home language thus: need for more training and qualified teachers, the inclusion of deaf people in the development of the language and policies, the need for South African Sign Language to have its own curriculum, instead of copying the English curriculum, and realising the number of deaf people in the country and the extent of what is needed to provide for them.

When last did you think of deaf poets and deaf story tellers? When last did you bring to mind the fact that there was speed of incredible suddenness in the rotted feet of the lame? Just as it is said that the loss of one capability makes the other capabilities much more able, the loss of hearing sharpens the imagination. How many million stories are locked away in the imagination of the millions of beggars on our streets and roundabouts and traffic jams?

It is the season of promises as the presidential and state elections are on us. The promises to do things that they had promised to do during the last round of elections going back to when promises were the thing to make knowing that those promises are renewable, not their fulfilment. The electorate is none the better for the promises. Rather, politicians keep making and breaking the same promises. Perhaps there ought to be a forum where communities of interest – poets, lawyers, actors, doctors, beggars, criminals, farmers of different crops and creatures, the deaf, the blind, the lame, the mute etc – can ask these keepers of our national resources to tell each one of them what they intend to do for them. In such a gathering, face to face with community needs, perhaps it would be more difficult for these ‘promisers’ to promise the same thing over and over and over again. We need to move forward, which we are not doing. Like Baba Salah’s daughter, we are not passing, we are not failing, we are stuck in one class!

In this article:
Kole Omotoso
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