“TV is boring!?” I bark and the four men seated at an adjacent table crane their necks in our direction again. There is no time to explain anything to them, or to the other diners who are constantly throwing us curious glances. The truth is; I feel like I owe everyone in this wide restaurant an explanation. “The lady in a bluish dress is deaf,” I overhear our waiter telling the two ladies seated two tables away from us. That makes me feel bad. I’m glad Josephine doesn’t hear that. She is gesticulating on, her eyes glued on the interpreter.

“Yes, TV is boring,” the interpreter continues to voice out Josephine’s gestures, her words promptly reassembling my drifting thoughts. “I don’t understand a lot of what is happening on TV. Sometimes the pictures look interesting, but they don’t mean anything to me,” she continues. “I miss important announcements and information, and sometimes I see them in newspapers when it is too late. Sometimes I try to watch news on TV, but without an interpreter it is meaningless,” she says.

The waiter is back with our drinks. “Madam is your juice okay?” he asks Josephine, whose eyes do not leave the interpreter’s, even as she sips her mango juice. “Yes, thank you,” the interpreter answers back almost instantly, her eyes fixed on Josephine’s. She immediately notices the waiter’s confusion and addresses him directly, “she says that her juice is perfect.” The waiter walks away. Without an interpreter, Josephine is lost to the world and the world to Josephine. She is not aware when the world speaks, but when she speaks, the world stares, or makes assumptions and passes judgments, without even understanding her message.

Josephine Were Shisia reluctantly talks about her life, her hands moving with rapid determination and grace, just as they do when she types away on her keyboard. She worked as a copy typist for over 20 years. Josephine lost her hearing from an ear, nose and throat infection shortly before her third birthday, and was able to sail against many odds with the support of her doting father. To most people, her silent world is a complicated web, but to her, it is just “my simple life.” Josephine’s life revolves around her 30-year-old son, Tony, and her work as a HIV/AIDS community mobiliser.

Double stigma

It is estimated that the deaf in Kenya are more than 600,000 people. Most of them are poor with no reliable income. It has also been reported that HIV and AIDS infection among this population is high due to low education and inadequate access to information. “Many deaf people experience rape and other forms of sexual abuse,” Josephine adds to these already gloomy statistics. While there is nothing she can do to reduce the cases of rape, Josephine knows the importance of educating the deaf about HIV/AIDS. “Very few professionals are trained in Kenya to meet the knowledge demands of the deaf,” she notes, adding that that is the reason she eagerly took up the opportunity to train as a HIV/AIDS community mobiliser for the deaf.

Her work includes mobilisation of the deaf community, creating awareness about HIV/AIDS, educating counsellors and patients on HIV/AIDS, and giving pre-test and post-test counselling to patients. “As a HIV/AIDS community mobiliser, I have been able to use sign language to share information about the infection and help many hearing impaired people overcome the communication barrier. I am overjoyed when they leave me with knowledge and with a promise to take a test to know their HIV status,” she says.

Josephine’s face becomes gloomy however when she starts to talk about stigma. “Stigma is part of the normal life of any deaf person; but if you are a deaf person with AIDS, you get double stigma,” she says. Since starting her job eight years ago at the Liverpool VCT Centre for the Deaf, at Commerce House, Moi Avenue, Nairobi, Josephine has constantly asked herself how she can help the deaf overcome stigma and live free of HIV. From this centre, and three others across Kenya – Mombasa, Kisumu and Hurlingham, Nairobi – Josephine believes there is already an impact in the community.

“The deaf are very poor in keeping secrets,” she discloses. “That is why it was difficult in the beginning to convince them to visit a VCT. But because of the work we have done educating them about the dangers of HIV, many of them can now walk into VCTs to be tested,” Josephine reports happily. She has found her work, from which she plans to retire at the end of the year, very fulfilling. “Talking with a deaf person about such intimate issues is much easier than talking with a hearing person. That is why I have gained the trust and counsel of deaf clients,” she reveals.

A deaf mom

Soft spoken and firm, deaf parents or parents of deaf children have learned to draw from Josephine’s knowledge on matters of parenting. Apart from that, she is constantly called upon during seminars to give to the deaf talks on family life and life with disability. “Bringing up my son to become a successful young man is my greatest achievement as a hearing impaired parent,” she states. Josephine’s son, Tony, is a God fearing journalist, something that fills his mother’s heart with pride. “His love for God endeared him to church missionaries who paid for his education and exposed him to the foreign lands of America and Britain,” she recalls with appreciation.

But being a divorced deaf woman, raising her son was not easy. Having separated from her husband after less than two years of marriage, Josephine had to work hard to provide for his needs and instil the discipline and confidence he needed to attain success. Tony was only 11 months old then, when her husband left. “As a Christian, I had to depend on God, and it paid back,” she states. Growing up, Tony always asked his mother about his father and requested her to get him other siblings.

The toughest part of parenting was in Josephine’s attempt to make her son understand and speak her language. “Teaching Tony sign language was my biggest challenge,” recalls Josephine. He cried a lot and got frustrated whenever he spoke to me and I could not hear him. Tony had only learnt of his mother’s deafness at the age of two as he had lived with his grandmother in Butere from the time his parents separated, while Josephine returned to Nairobi to look for employment. “God has blessed my son. We suffered a lot but God made a way for us,” she states. The two remain very close.

The third born in a family of four, Josephine says that her childhood was difficult. Frustrated by her lack of hearing, members of her family treated her cruelly, while villagers called her cursed. Nearly everyone taunted, teased and mistreated her publicly. She also did not attend school until the age of seven when her family learnt about Mumias School for the Deaf, in Western Kenya.

“Life became difficult at school and the joy of leaving the sad memories of the village did not last long. I could not communicate in sign language and therefore did not understand what was being taught,” she recalls. With her father’s encouragement, however, Josephine worked hard and got a good grade in her standard seven exams. She later did a course in typewriting, tailoring and first aid.

“My father and I were very happy when I completed college,” Josephine recalls. But because of her deafness, most organisations declined to employ her, until her ex-principal at the college came to her rescue after one year and employed her as a copy typist at the school. She held her first job for four years before meeting and marrying the father of her son, and moving with him to Nairobi. She was to later work in the same capacity at various other organisations associated with the deaf, in Nairobi. Even while working among the deaf, Josephine experienced exploitation and discrimination that toughened her.

A good swimmer

Remarriage has never been an option for this born-again Christian. “I had a bad experience with my ex-husband and lost interest in marriage,” she shares, adding that she does not like conflict. It is this fear of disagreements that has pushed her into saving money from her meagre earnings, to buy her own piece of land to carry out farming, instead of taking up a piece of land that her father bequeathed her when he died. “I want to buy my own land in Kitale or Bungoma. I don’t want to cause trouble between me and my siblings when my mother dies,” she states.

When not at work, the independent minded Josephine spends her time swimming at the coast, or travelling around East Africa visiting friends. “My best pass time activity is swimming. I’m a good swimmer,” she discloses. After more than 18 years of hearing the word of God, Josephine became a committed Christian in 1990. She is a member of Emmanuel Church for the Deaf, Nairobi.

Published in June 2012