The deaf and hearing-impaired face many challenges in Nigeria, such as lack of proper education, mockery, stigma and occasional violence. However, Kingdom Uchenna Nwanyanwu, the founder and president of DEHAT Ability Support Initiative (DASI), is working very hard to change that.
His experience with American Sign Language (ASL) began nearly 17 years ago, when he took an ASL class offered at his church. His advocacy and appreciation of ASL eventually led him to become an instructor, and now he offers peer-education training, mentoring and advocacy for deaf and hard-of-hearing teenagers through his organization, DASI.
Kingdom shared some of the challenges he faced in working to serve individuals who are differently abled. “If you’re working as an advocate or as an activist or as a promoter of the welfare of people living with disabilities, be ready to face a whole lot of challenges,” he said. “This is because you are working to promote [the] interest of people that so many people out there do not see their potential value.”
Nonetheless, his efforts continue in his goals to educate more people in ASL, teach life skills to individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing, and eventually open a learning institute for the deaf in Nigeria. He shares his advice to the YALI network on the importance of perseverance and commitment to those in need:
“Just keep doing, keep on moving on, keep on pushing, keep on adding the little you have, the little effort you’re making, keep on adding to it. Over time, those little drops of water will form a very big ocean, and you will look back and see how far you have gone, what you have achieved so far, and you will be happy that you started the way you started.”
To hear more about Kingdom’s advocacy work and learn how to better serve those who are differently abled, listen below:
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: Kingdom Uchenna Nwanyanwu
KINGDOM UCHENNA NWANYANWU: Kingdom Uchenna Nwanyanwu.
It all started some 17 years ago. Then, I remember one of the days I was walking on the way. I noticed beggars, you know, asking for money, begging, and people were turning them down, making mockery of them, and some of them would get angry, cuss the people, and walk away. So, it kept happening. So at the time, I started feeling sorry for these people. There is no way for me to talk with them, there is no way for people to communicate with them, and they cannot help themselves. People make mockery of them and laugh at them. So, the compassion I felt for these people and the love I have for justice moved me to do something to identify with this group that we are seeing as downtrodden, the marginalized people.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICE OVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices Podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices Podcast and visit yali.state.gov to stay up to date on all things YALI.
Meet Kingdom, founder and executive director of DEHAT Ability Support Initiative, a community-based organization where he focuses on providing peer-education training for teenagers and serving as an advocate for the hearing-impaired. While his work to help teens is important to him, it is on his work as an advocate for the deaf and hard-of hearing person that we focus our discussion. He has served as a counselor and teacher for the deaf. He teaches American Sign Language and helps the deaf in his community develop skills-training so that they can live independent lives.
A YALI Network member and 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow from Nigeria, Kingdom first learned how to sign by taking a class held at his church.
KINGDOM: We had a kind of voluntary class where sign language was taught to volunteers, particularly young people who were interested. So I quickly joined the classes, and that was how I first of all stepped into the sign-language world. Eventually, after I attended the class for some time, I stopped, but one of the days again, I ran into two young ladies who were also deaf. They went into a shop to buy something, but nobody was able to communicate with them. When I saw them, I wanted to talk with them, but people said I shouldn’t bother because they can’t hear me. But I went. I used a little of what I knew. I was able to sign, and they responded. They were so happy. I gave them two books, and they took the books and they went away.
So from learning — after two years, the people who were teaching us had to leave, and they appointed me to take care of the class. So, I took care of the class and I became the chief instructor, which eventually lasted for over eight years. So, that was how I stepped into sign-language field working with the deaf.
Okay, my religious organization saw it as important to teach the youth who are volunteers, who wish to learn, because just as we read from the Bible, it is the will of God that all sorts of people should be saved. So, those who are deaf, those who are blind, or those with different kinds of disabilities are people that also deserve salvation. That was why such an event was put in place, and I happily volunteered to be part of those to ensure that I’m able to reach many people, especially those with hearing disabilities.
KINGDOM: When someone cannot hear, he is cut off from communication. Generally in Nigeria — in the United States, I think the cases are a bit different, but in Nigeria, like a developing country, we have issues with taking care of people with disabilities. That is the truth. So my religious organization — I think it’s not just peculiar to Nigeria alone. It’s something they do all over the world. They have different groups. It’s part of it. Just like I said earlier, it is the desire of the organization to ensure that everybody has access to God’s word. That is why they brought it in. But in Nigeria particularly, there is no laudable arrangements or improvement so far, trying to put these people who have hearing disabilities, trying to give them what they really need. There is no such.
I moved from learning under a religious umbrella to an NGO starting with CBO, first of all — community-based organization — because I knew that learning at the religious level, we always be within the religious circle, you know? But as a person, while I’m still doing that one, I realized that I have to institutionalize something for myself and those who are with me so that we’d be able to reach other people with other things that have no religious affiliations. For instance, my organization, which is DEHAT Ability Support Initiative, which is sometimes called D-Ability or DASI for short. Those other things, apart from working with the deaf too. For instance, the word DEHAT represents the deaf, the hard-of-hearing and teenagers, so we also do mentoring work. I cannot do those things by just working with the religious group alone, so I have to broaden. I am still using the skill I learned of communication and relating with the deaf people, and then trying to reach out to these people in these other ways, like working the family levels, promoting their interest as an advocate, as an activist. All those are purely out of religious arrangement. So I had to have an institution that enabled me to have a greater impact on people.
VOICE OVER: Providing services to the deaf has presented certain challenges to Kingdom, including skepticism from others in his community who question the value of what he is doing. We asked Kingdom to share some of the difficulty he has faced in getting his organization up and running. He later provides a picture of the deplorable circumstances that the hearing-impaired face in his community.
KINGDOM: Some of the challenges I have faced so far, especially when I started, was lack of encouragements because generally, people want to see you do what they feel is worthwhile, you know? Deaf people, mainly looking at them, working with them, does not present any kind of material benefit. Does not present any kind of tangible thing that someone can lay out and then say, “Yes, I work with these people.”
Number 2 is, apart from the Father, people do not encourage you. You know very well that community-based organizations, or NGOs as the case may be, are really sustained by supports, donations and so on. When these things are not forthcoming, what do you expect? You have to work on your own physically, materially, financially and otherwise.
Thirdly, having people work with me was also a bit difficult because it required a lot of sacrifices. Okay, sometimes we have to do what we call “deaf hunting” or “deaf search” — we go for “deaf search.” Sometimes we walk for five, six miles, going from place to place to ask if there are deaf people living in this area. You can imagine what it is like. You’re walking from place to place. And eventually, when you get one deaf person, that person will not help you to get another because they know themselves, you know? So, we have to walk miles. Not just once, not just twice for so many days, for so many months, for so many years. When we do that, we will be able to get in touch with these people, know their family members and then be able to render services we have for them and reach them.
So, discouragements, physical exertion, mockery. I remember some people telling me, “Don’t worry; you’re going to marry a deaf person. If you have children, they’re going to be deaf and all of you will be using your hands to talk.” And they were laughing. As a young person, as a teenager, I felt somehow I was almost discouraged, but I knew I had a greater future. I had a bigger picture in mind, so that kept me going.
The deaf people face a lot of challenges. For instance, from the day a child is born and eventually the parents discover that this child is a deaf person, a boy or a girl, then that is the day his future is sealed in the sense that the parents will not even think of sending the child to school, you know. After all, “Why do I send them to school or spend money on this child who doesn’t hear anything? What is he going to learn there?” So they simply dump this child at home and he grows up to become an adult who has not been exposed to even alphabet A, B, C, D. It is quite terrible.
Now, you can imagine someone who cannot hear, he can only see. But when you now want to communicate with him, he does not even understand. He doesn’t know alphabet, he doesn’t know sign language, and he cannot speak and he cannot hear. You can see terrible situation that they are in. How do they communicate with people to tell them their needs? It is terrible. That is why some of them resort to violence, because when they try to let you understand what they need and you seem not to understand, instead you are doing another thing or, perhaps, even making a mockery of them, they might even end up fighting or engaging in any kind of violent act.
So now, these people lack education, many of them. They lack skills that could help them fend for themselves or earn a living. These people also lack employment, you understand. And they lack recognition in the society. They don’t have a voice. They are nobody. They’re not recognized as anything.
So these are some of the things that they face. The only thing that people know of them is they are beggars. In order to describe a deaf person, describe a deaf man, that man there, that beggar there. You can imagine. So the psychological effect alone is really not encouraging.
Deaf women have a whole lot of challenges too because when someone is a beggar, he will have to dance to the tune of the one who wants to give. Look at this scenario, I’m working somewhere, maybe very close to an incomplete building and then eventually, there is a beggar around and I want to give something to the beggar and I tell the beggar to come. What would the beggar do? He would have to come. Now if this beggar is a woman and she is deaf, the only way of communicating is just a signal of the hands to come take money and she comes. She could be raped. And when she is raped, she could suffer for the rest of her life emotional trauma. She could get pregnant, unwanted pregnancy. She could even contract all kinds of venereal diseases or another. These are some of the health risks.
KINGDOM: My organization has short-term goals and long-term goals too.
To start with, the short-term goals involve giving ongoing mentorship and support to the deaf and the hard of hearing. I have groups, or I teach them to communicate with people, and not just teaching them. Apart from the fact that I help them to understand how to communicate, I also create a world around them because I notice that they are lonely, many of them. That is why they live in colony. They know where each other live because they lack proper association and companionship.
So, many people are there. If you want to learn, we can teach you. We do not take money. It is an open thing; it is a free thing. So by doing so, more and more people are able to have at least a slight idea of what they call American Sign Language, and by so doing, we create a world around these deaf people so they’re no longer the only ones signaling and then being lonely. People can now communicate with them. That is one of the goals I am doing, I’m pursuing now. I’ve been doing it. I’m still pursuing to do more.
And secondly, I also have the goal of creating little skills-acquisition programs such as baking, bead making, all of these smaller programs that they can learn and be able to fit. And the reason is, if they learn this, these are skills that could be learned in a couple of months as the case may be. It doesn’t have to take so long a time. Some of these things, we could arrange for them to learn and then be able to support themselves on the short-term.
But for the long-term goals, I’m looking at establishing an institution, a special institution for deaf education. It would be purely for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, and maybe anybody who wants to learn, but it is for the deaf and hard of hearing. This institution is going to be unique in the sense that:
Number 1, the challenges we face in Nigeria have to be addressed. To start with, we have deaf schools in Nigeria actually, especially in my area, Port Harcourt area and Rivers State, we have deaf schools, though very few of them. But almost 90 percent of the teachers in these schools do not even understand sign language. So I wonder how they’re able to communicate with these people. You can imagine when you teach me but you don’t understand my language. You can imagine the quality of knowledge that you pass to these children. That is one. So, I’m going to address that issue.
Number 2 is that some of these students, after learning and they come out, what happens next? In Nigeria, it is expected that when someone graduates from high school or a university, he should get a job. But when they graduate, what happens? So I also want to address that issue again.
Now if I establish an institute I’m looking at, which is a long-term goal, I’m going to make sure that all the teachers there are signers. That is one. I will also have standby interpreters who will be there to assist anybody who may not be deaf but have something to do with us to interpret so that nobody will be left out, because from what I’m learning so far, inclusiveness is very important. In everything you do with someone who has a hearing disability, you must make sure he or she is carried along. So when we have people who do not sign, there will be an interpreter to help them understand. So these are some of the things I have to make sure that I put in place.
And I also want to make provision for vocational departments where anybody who graduates will have to learn some skills, some life-supporting skills so that, as they are graduating, they have the certificate, they have the knowledge, so that the issue of employment will no longer be there to worry them. This is because these people already have some measure of disability. But because of some measure of disability that they carry, competing with people out there who are also job seekers may be a bit difficult. So we have to help them have an edge so that, in case job does not come, they will be able to take care of themselves.
KINGDOM: Our current YALI members in Port Harcourt, in the south of Nigeria and in Nigeria, even in Africa, all over, is that they have to be dedicated if they want to do something similar to what I’m doing. It may be with the deaf, blind people, it may be with people with all kinds of disabilities, but one thing is sure. If you’re working as an advocate or as an activist or as a promoter of the welfare of people living with disabilities, be ready to face a whole lot of challenges. This is because you are working to promote the interest of people that so many people out there do not see their potential value. Many people do not see value in lives of people with disabilities. Some people just assume that these people just need to be supported, they live their life and that is the end. But you have to be prepared to face so many discouragements, psychological discouragements, physical discouragements, financial discouragement and so many other ones. So these are some of the things we have to do.
What I advise, YALI Network members in Nigeria, in Port Harcourt, in Africa, or everywhere who are interested in working with people living with disabilities, is that they should realize from the beginning that it takes a whole lot of sacrifice to work with such people.
It also requires patience. And then, we must remember too that you do not expect people to support you when you start because many people do not see any potential benefits accruing from working with this type of people. But, like we always know, when you read the Bible, it tells you that those who are working for those who are lonely, or those who are helping the lonely people will receive their reward from God himself. So when someone is expecting a reward from God himself, he does not look whether people appreciate what you’re doing or not. So having that mentality will help you to succeed.
And apart from discouragement you are going to face, you also have to give yourself so many years before you can begin to see progress to what you are doing. Just keep doing, keep on moving on, keep on pushing, keep on adding the little you have, the little effort you’re making, keep on adding to it. Over time, those little drops of water will form a very big ocean, and you will look back and see how far you have gone, what you have achieved so far, and you will be happy that you started the way you started.
KINGDOM: I try to incorporate the opinions of the people I work with — that is, the people I want to help, the deaf and hard of hearing, in the sense that sometimes I have a meeting with some of them to find out what exactly they want. What are some of the challenges they face? What are some of the things that they feel that, if these things are done, the situation will get better for them? When they give all these feedbacks, I use the feedback to work because if you want to prepare food for somebody, you should know especially what the person eats, what the person does not eat, what the person is allergic to, before you will be able to serve someone something that the person can eat and enjoy. So, the people we are working with — I do not just come up on my own, create ideas, execute, no. I also consult them once in a while to find out what really they really want, where do they want us to go to. What are some of the things they feel that if they do this, their life will have more direction.
By so doing, I’m able to extract their ideas, view their needs. Then with my team, we’ll be able to look at it together and then know the way forward.
VOICE OVER: Kingdom estimates that he has helped thousands of the hearing-impaired and teenagers through his organization, DEHAT Ability Support Initiative. For those seeking help for themselves, friends or family, you can send a message to him on Facebook. Just search for D-E-H-A-T Ability Support Initiative. Again, that’s D-E-H-A-T Ability Support Initiative.
Thank you, Kingdom.
Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices Podcast.
Join the YALI Network at yali.state.gov and be a part of something bigger!
Our theme music is “E – Go Happen,” by Grace Jerry and produced by The Presidential Precinct.
The YALI Voices Podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government.