By Violet Ikong
Nelson Igelle is a deaf student studying architecture at the Enugu State University of Science and Technology in Enugu State, South-Eastern Nigeria. Now aged 28, Igelle lost his hearing at the age of three. He learns with the help of an interpreter who goes to school with him every day and translates his lecturers’ words into sign language. His interpreter signs for him using American Sign Language, which is the main one taught across Nigerian institutions.
When he returns home for the holidays, Igelle interacts with his parents and other family members through gestures or writing because they do not understand American Sign Language. But his parents have difficulty understanding him, and Igelle is not alone. Many Nigerian deaf children have difficulty communicating with their family members and others around them because, unlike other African countries like Ghana, South Africa, and the Gambia, the Nigerian government has not yet approved a national sign language.
Leonard Ugwanyi, a senior sign language lecturer at the special education unit of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in Enugu State, said he often feels frustrated that the system forces deaf students to communicate using American Sign Language. He believes that students would understand indigenous signs better than a language from abroad. Nigeria is home to a plethora of undocumented and unrecognized Indigenous sign languages, but these are on the verge of extinction due to lack of use, said Ugwanyi.
For this reason, he said, “When teaching, I try to use both the American and Indigenous sign languages to teach my students, so they understand better.”
The World Health Organization estimates that 1.5 billion people globally live with some degree of hearing loss, out of which 430 million people require rehabilitation services. About 70 million use about 300 different sign languages to communicate.
In Nigeria, a 2016 study showed that as much as 23.76% of the country’s population suffers from hearing impairment. And the lack of an approved national sign language hinders effective communication between deaf people and those around them.
Finding a solution
Emmanuel Asonye is a researcher in sign language linguistics at the University of New Mexico. In 2014, he learned that deaf Nigerian people were having a hard time communicating with people around them. To change that narrative, he founded Save the Deaf and Endangered Languages Initiative (S-Deli), a nonprofit that promotes deaf literacy in Nigeria by documenting and saving Indigenous Nigerian sign languages from extinction.
“I started learning British sign language about four years ago,” said Sinmi Labisi, a Nigerian volunteer for S-Deli who recently finished her master’s studies in International Development at the University of Sheffield, England. “I was planning on moving to the next level of my sign language education and decided to go online and search for Nigerian sign language, but I couldn’t find anything.”
Asonye’s organization began investigating why it was difficult for deaf pupils and their parents to communicate. “If you go to the Deaf communities in rural Nigeria, you will know that there are sign language varieties used in these communities, which are not known to those in the urban areas,” he said. “We found out that the [American] sign language that is taught to the students at school is different from what they knew before they went to school, and with time, they forget how to communicate with their Indigenous sign language.”
S-Deli started looking at the various sign languages taught across deaf schools in the country. They analyzed samples of sign language varieties from schools in Owerri, Imo State, in South-Eastern Nigeria, and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. In 2017, they proceeded to analyze sign language varieties in schools in Lagos and Enugu state. After collecting samples of the language taught in these schools, S-Deli started digging deep to collect samples of sign language varieties used in rural areas across different regions of Nigeria.
In 2018 and 2019, S-Deli documented Indigenous sign languages in Magajin Gari and Ibokun communities of Kaduna and Ogun states, and has now completed more than 10 documentations. The work is done by recording deaf children and their parents. The interviewer asks questions, such as how to describe a plate using sign language. The organization collects the specimens and takes them for analysis. Asonye’s team found that only about 1% of parents understood their deaf children.
Now S-Deli is developing a sign language mobile application called “Indigenous Hands.” The application will launch in early 2022 in Google and Apple stores. It will include at least 10 Indigenous sign languages used across Nigeria’s six regions; more languages will be added as they are discovered. “Our aim is to help deaf students and hearing people learn Indigenous sign languages for effective communication, and there will be a feature in the app that allows users to search signs that relate to a particular topic, like health, and others in their preferred sign language,” Asonye said. “When we met some of the deaf students when we started the organization, we discovered that some of them, especially those from rural areas, had sign language varieties they came to school with. But soon, [they] dropped those signs because they were told that those signs were just gestures.”
Onyinye Nwandikom, S-Deli’s head of projects, said that in the future, the application will include live tutors, so that students will be able to interact with sign language teachers in real time for a better learning experience. She said it would also have a virtual community where students can interact and ask questions.
Difficulty choosing a language and other drawbacks
The group plans to work with the Nigerian National Association of the Deaf to push for the national adoption of its documented sign languages. “Before we began the documentation of Indigenous sign languages, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the Nigerian National Association of the Deaf. After we are done with the documentation process, we will work with them to push for the adoption of Indigenous national sign languages in the country,” said Nwandikom. “There are different varieties of sign languages in Nigeria. So, it is difficult to pick one as a national sign language.” However, Onyinye said the group would work with the Nigerian National Association of the Deaf to push for the adoption of as many indigenous sign languages as possible.
S-Deli depends on community-generated funds and donations to run its activities. Asonye said the organization is seeking corporate donors. The group faces distrust from the deaf community, the very people it is working to help. This further slows the pace of development.
“There’s a level of distrust that most deaf people in our communities have concerning people who can speak. Most times, when we go to the communities, these deaf persons find it difficult to trust us or talk to us, and this makes our work difficult,” said Blessing Ini, an interpreter at the organization.
Distrust arose because deaf people in Nigeria continue to face stigmatization and are denied opportunities, Ugwanyi said. “The country sees deaf people as people who have nothing to offer to the government. There should be a special ministry for people with disabilities like them. In other countries, you see deaf people being entrepreneurs and taking on different jobs. But when you come to Nigeria, it is hardly so,” he lamented.
Ugwanyi and Asonye believe that the first step towards tackling distrust is to include members of the Deaf Community in national and state policy and decision making on issues concerning sign language, unlike the current arrangement where hearing people control such policies and decisions. They say a second step is to ensure that schools for deaf students have adequate and well-trained tutors. “We have inadequately trained personnel in our deaf schools,” said Ugwanyi. The University of Nigeria, for example, has only two teachers who teach students with hearing loss.
Nelson Igelle, the architecture student, participated in S-Deli’s documentation process in Abuja. Now he says he cannot wait for the launch of the “Indigenous Hands” application in 2022. He believes the application will allow him to learn and understand Indigenous sign languages so that he can finally communicate effectively with his family.
Violet Ikong is a freelance writer based in Nigeria who reports on solutions-based stories. She has been published in Prime Progress, The Record UNN, and Niger Delta Post.