AT FIRST SIGHT, Jeannette Uwihoreye portrays the image of a perfect, young, energetic youth.
Fairly tall, light-skinned and jolly, Uwihoreye’s physical beauty is striking.
She exudes such confidence that one may think she is a blessed young lady who is fully enjoying her youthful age.
And when she walks in front of people, cat-walking to showcase some of her leather and textile collections, you can’t stop applauding and appreciating such a courageous, innovative and highly-skilled young woman.
But that’s until you learn of her misfortune. Then the appreciation you had for this 29-year-old girl more than doubles.
When I met Uwihoreye, she was busy operating a modern knitting machine to produce sweaters that she sells to earn a living. As I started chatting with her, I realised she wasn’t getting what I was saying.
That’s when I learnt that she can neither speak nor hear. She is among those commonly referred to as deaf-and-dumb.
But that has not prevented her from dreaming big and working hard to achieve better living conditions despite the many challenges that her situation poses.
Solace within others
Uwihoreye is among the few lucky individuals among those with similar impairment.
She has benefitted from a special skills development programme that equipped her with skills in tailoring.
Originally from Muhanga District, Uwihoreye underwent the training at a Huye-based school for the deaf and dumb.
After graduating over a year ago, life again became hard as she failed to secure a job and lacked enough capital to start her own business.
But Uwihoreye did not give up. She joined hands with other former school colleagues–all deaf-and-dumb–to start a cooperative which they named Nyereka Ibiganza Byawe, (or literary show me your palms).
“Coming together has made it possible for us to share skills and experiences,” Uwihoreye says through an interpreter, a young man familiar with the sign language.
“Together we are struggling to beat stereotypes which come with our disabilities while at the same time proving that with our skills we can lead normal lives.”
“We are learning from each other and together we get inspired to beat the several challenges that lie in our way,” she adds, with a smile.
Created in July 2013, the cooperative has a total of 18 members, all young individuals, who are working hard to transform their lives despite the speaking and hearing impairment.
Though they are yet to register significant achievements, the cooperative has so far managed to put some products on the market.
These include knitted sweaters, scarves, tablecloths and a set of home ornaments. They also include custom-made school uniforms, insignia, metal boxes and stoves, among others.
Their collection also includes leather clothes that have won them accolades for their originality and fineness.
“By coming together, we wanted to merge our skills and work jointly for better living conditions,” explains Felix Karangwa, the coop representative.
“With time and perseverance, our lives are improving.”
Karangwa, who also speaks through an interpreter, says though they are just beginning, they hope to register success.
But they are facing serious challenges which they say are affecting them.
Lacking the ability to speak and hear comes with a lot of challenges and stereotype that once not addressed can keep them at bay, they argue.
“These people have skills but the society still looks down upon them which is wrong,” says Ernest Munyantore, the coop deputy representative who also doubles as the group’s interpreter.
“Several of them have been denied work because they can’t speak or hear. We have skilled masons, craftsmen, tailors, among others, but unfortunately their abilities are still widely disregarded,” he bemoans.
“Society needs to understand that these people can be productive like others and recognise the fact that they have special needs as a result of their health situation.”
Lack of access to specialised education and information on available opportunities due to communication barriers also remain key challenges to the young individuals.
“The society needs to keep supporting us if we are to be successful in our endeavours,” Karangwa notes.