It is 9:00 a.m in morning at the Butare Centre of the deaf and dumb. Children between the ages 10 to 16, clad in their bright coloured school uniforms play in front of the school’s main building. Some stand in two parallel lines; judging by the smiles on their faces, they are expecting an early morning visitor.
The driver pulls closer to them as he tries to find packing space, as expected there is near stampede as the children crowd over the car to see who is inside and possibly have a feel of the car.
For an observant visitor, one thing suddenly strikes you; the absence of noise that is expected from the over 100 children playing in the compound. Instead you hear incoherent sounds and see a lot of gestures. It is at this point that it suddenly hits you that the children can neither hear nor talk.
The Butare School of the deaf that is run by the Brothers of St. Gabriel has 155 children with speech and hearing impairments, it is one of the few schools in the Country that handles such children with special needs.
Children at the school undergo a 3 year intensive communication training programme after which a selection exercise is made for those to continue in the formal education system or vocational training school.
“Children brought here come when they cannot hear or speak, we do confirmatory tests in our laboratories to ensure that they have such impairments.
Thereafter we embark on a rigorous training programme in special communication skills,” said Brother Jean Claude Munyaneza, the Director of the school.
After 3 years, children who exhibit exceptional communication ability are sent to nearby schools where they continue their education in the formal education system. Those who fail to adapt are also given a second chance through vocational training.
“Children from this centre excel like all others in the formal education system while those who remain here get vocational training in fields like construction and embroidery,” said Munyaneza.
This year, 10 students from the centre will be joining secondary school, an addition to the 50 already enrolled in the neighbouring secondary schools.
“We now have 5 students enrolled at University, one has relocated to the United States of America where he is pursuing higher education,” said Munyaneza, adding that, “many others have found employment and have gone on to establish families while leading successful lives.”
The school is impeccably clean, no litter is thrown around because these students are passionate about their environment.
Children are not left alone but are facilitated by 28 members who are teaching staff. They handle classes of between 10 to 15 pupils.
When it time for activity, all pupils at the centre are obliged to take swimming lessons. Though this may be interpreted as a lifestyle of the affluent, swimming serves other purposes as the Director of the school was quick to point out.
“Swimming helps them to breathe with ease and to reinforce the functioning of their lungs since they cannot talk,” he said.
Punching beyond its weight
Despite the successes registered, the centre is faced with a number of challenges.
According to Munyaneza, the number of children who wish to join the centre is increasing by the day; unfortunately many are turned away due to budget and infrastructure constraints.
“We have over 200 children on our waiting list, we cannot take them in because of limited infrastructure and financial resources to cater for them since they all live here,” said Munyaneza.
As if that is not enough, the equipment needed at the school is very expensive to procure; the centre relies on donations from well wishers mostly coming from France.
“A simple hearing aid costs about Rwf800,000, yet this is out of reach for ordinary Rwandans,” said Brother Jean Marie Nzohabonaye, a teacher at the school.
The school also faces a daunting challenge of keeping its teaching staff. Many have chosen to live due to a low pay which is not proportionate with the work they do.
“We are not given special allowances for the extra work that we do, we earn like any other teacher in ‘normal’ schools, many of our colleagues who cannot stand these conditions unfortunately choose to leave,” said Eugenia Baziki, “for me this is more of a calling that a paying job.”
Recently, President Paul Kagame donated 12 knitting machines to facilitate the centre’s vocational programme and further Rwf30million to refurbish it.
Such efforts are commendable but much more needs to be done to help these children and many others still in villages to live more productive lives.