At Umutara Deaf School in Nyagatare, Brown Niyonsaba, 31, is having a conversation in Rwandan Sign Language (RSL) with Deaf students about sexual reproductive health. It represents the fulfillment of a dream: to empower all Deaf people like her to have an equal chance of expressing their ideas, growing as individuals and contributing to Rwanda’s development.
Brown is one of more than 200 young Rwandan national VSO volunteers, and over 20 international VSO volunteers, working towards the vision of a Rwanda without poverty, where no one is left behind.
Like VSO, Brown knows that all people have potential. She firmly believes that if hearing people could consider RSL to be as important as spoken language, there could be no limitations for Deaf people.
Her story is testament to the huge achievements people can reach, given the right support and equal opportunity.
Growing up Deaf
Brown is the eldest of five siblings. She and her younger sister were born Deaf.
As a child, Brown remembers her mother taking her to Butare Centre for Deaf Children following an announcement over the radio inviting children with hearing and speech difficulties to study there.
Unfortunately, her parents did not live to see Brown complete her education; she had lost both mother and father by the age of 17.
Brown’s mother died after an illness in 2004, but she still does not know what happened to her father. She says this is “because of the limited access to information among people who don’t know sign language.”
The power of perseverence
Brown grew up among relatives and family friends who continued their support for her education in a mainstream school.
“At my school, teachers didn’t know sign language. I would try to read the teachers’ simple gestures and read what was written on the chalkboard. Whenever I needed some explanation, I would write to them and wait for their answer”.
Brown buried herself in books and remained very attentive in classes until she completed her Advance Level in accounting in 2011.
“I passed so well that I got a university scholarship from the government,” she says excitedly.
Brown was admitted to the Adventist University of Central Africa (AUCA) where she achieved a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology.
Look for job? No, create a job!
“I was aware there were limited job opportunities even for hearing graduates, so I had never been hopeful about getting a job,” Brown explains.
Brown recalls that there are several TV news broadcasts she had watched President Kagame inspiring people to create jobs than seeking them. “I decided to create my own job too,” she smiles.
Brown formed a group of Deaf tailors and artists. This later grew into United Deaf Women Cooperative (UDWCO), which today has 17 members, operating out of Kabeza Kigali.
Working with VSO
Brown had been trained as RSL instructor by the Rwanda Union of the Deaf (RNUD), a longstanding VSO partner. VSO began supporting the cooperative she helped to form with technical support and financial assistance.
Soon, Brown learned that VSO was recruiting volunteers. The organization was searching for a skilled Deaf young person to work with Deaf youth on sexual health issues – young Deaf women and men often do not get this kind of infomriton and it must them at risk. Brown successfully applied and started her volunteer placement in December 2017.
Today, she teaches sexual reproductive health to over 80 students of Umutara School for the Deaf. Brown also supervises a team of RSL instructors training 140 community health workers and nurses at local health centres so far, so that young Deaf people can get the sexual health services they need.
Through Brown’s efforts, VSO is helping to break the barrier between Deaf and hearing people in the community. Meanwhile, for Brown volunteering with VSO is a golden opportunity to fulfil her dream to empower all people with hearing difficulties to live a full life.
Lessons from her mother
Brown remembers the encouragement she always got from her mother:
“My mother used to remind us of the family and friends who were offering us support, encouraging us to go to school and to become self-reliant, and that we should support others just as we are helped,” she remembers.
“I only believed my mother knew the right thing. I grew up an ambitious person, knowing that everything is possible as long as one worked toward a vision,” she noted.
Her sister, too, is a high achiever; she attained a Bachelor’s degree in IT and is now working for Rwanda Union of the Deaf (RNUD).
Brown is motivated to use her experiences to help Deaf people reach their full potential:
“I want to continue to be an example for others as I share my knowledge with them.”
VSO is an international NGO supporting development through the lasting power of volunteering. VSO works in 24 countries in the area of education, health and livelihoods. VSO is committed to making sure no one is left behind and that everyone can benefit from and contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). VSO is a global leader in volunteering for development and engages people from all walks of life in volunteerism in its programmes.
This year VSO celebrates its 20th anniversary of working in Rwanda after it first opened its doors in 1998. Since then VSO has worked across Rwanda with over 1,000 international and national volunteers and with over 50 partners in government, public services and civil society. Inclusion of women and girls, and men and boys, with disabilities is at the heart of our programmes in inclusive education, livelihoods, sexual and reproductive health, and social accountability.
VSO Rwanda is committed to empowering women and girls, and men and boys, of all backgrounds, especially those with disabilities, to be part of Rwanda’s development. VSO believes that gender equality is good for everyone. On International Women’s Day we celebrate Brown and the remarkable women and men that we work with to promote gender responsive and inclusive development in Rwanda.
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