Sign language is used by people who are not able to communicate through spoken language. Usually these are people who are born deaf or who become deaf later in life due to different causes.
Like other languages, sign language has organized grammar and other language structure.
According to Jolanda Harrewyn, Sign language Education advisor at Rwanda National Union of the Deaf (RNUD) in Kigali, “You can communicate about anything; the past, future, feelings, dreams, beliefs and more in sign language”.
Is sign language the same as gestures? Harrewyn, an experienced sign language teacher says gestures are also part of spoken language known as non-verbal; giving an example of a policeman waving to a motorist to stop or continue or when you beckon to someone to come or leave. Gestures may also be used in sign language.
Sign language has an alphabet made with hands and fingers to represent letters as we know them – a, b, c, e, f, g, h………. . Numbers are also represented by various signs made in a similar way.
The letters are used by the deaf people to spell names of people and places.
In spite of differences in various sign languages, Harrewyn says certain signs are similar; for example signs for sleeping and eating.
She says as Rwanda sign language developed differently, this makes it different from other sign languages but that when deaf people from different countries meet and communicate they may borrow signs from one another.
It is such interaction that has contributed to sign language used by the deaf in international conferences.
“Two hearing people from different countries with no knowledge of each other’s language would find it more difficult to communicate than their deaf counterparts in a similar situation.
Deaf people, with knowledge of sign language soon begin to communicate quite easily and effectively.” The sign language teacher, emphasises that the deaf should get the opportunity to study sign language in order to broaden their scope of communication and facilitate their ability to study in other educational fields.
She says being deaf does not automatically make one proficient in sign language. On news interpretation into sign language on Rwanda Television, she says this among other things, creates awareness about the deaf.
Who would be a better sign language teacher between a deaf person and a hearing one?
In Rwanda, she points out deaf people are likely to make better teachers of sign language on account of their skills in the language but that generally, a good sign language teacher should combine interest in the language with training which will facilitate teaching the language.
Is society aware of its obligation to the deaf? “Some people are, but not all,” says Emmanuel Nshimiyimana, in charge of Finance, Administration and Management at RNUD who lost his hearing at 13 and is now 26.
“When some people see deaf people using sign language they think they are mad. Deaf people however, have ideas like anyone else – the difference is that they cannot put them in words,” Nshimiyimana said.
In addition to his responsibilities at RNUD, Nshimiyimana is a student at the School of Finance and Banking (SFB) in Kigali.
He says there is an urgent need to advocate for the deaf so as to increase their chances to study, become self-reliant and be more integrated in society.
He feels another way to create awareness is to encourage interest in hearing people to learn sign language which will open up to them the entire world of the deaf , who are at times, mistakenly regarded by some, as of low intellectual capacity.
According to him, there are 17 deaf students in the institutions of higher learning in the country studying side by side with their hearing counterparts. “It’s true they have challenges but some how they manage”.
He says he is happy Rwanda Television news is interpreted into sign language for the benefit of the deaf.
Betty Uwinyange, who interprets news into sign language at Rwanda Television, is not deaf as some people assume.
She says she studied sign language for two years with the objective to help deaf people to communicate especially during meetings.
Uwinyange also plays an important role during social functions involving the deaf such as weddings. She urges other hearing people to learn sign language not as away of getting jobs but primarily with a view to bridge the gap between hearing and deaf people.
What is the attitude of the deaf to society in general? Shyaka Remera, a deaf young man, says: “When a deaf person is in a group of hearing people, he feels a bit lonely because he cannot communicate as effectively. This is the only problem”.
I detected no sign of resentment in his face as I talked to him through an interpreter.
RNUD is a non- governmental organization for the deaf people by the deaf people which was established in 1989 to raise awareness about their challenges.
Its aim is to advocate for equal opportunities and rights of deaf people. A member of World
Federation of the Deaf (WFD), RNUD, works in partnership with Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO) - Rwanda. Besides training both the Deaf and Hearing in sign language, RNUD researches Rwanda sign language, trains trainers, develops materials – thanks to their efforts - at the moment it is possible to purchase the first edition of Rwanda sign language dictionary!Vedaste Kambanda is an employee of Rwanda National Television.