Wednesday, 04 April 2007

Immersion in deaf culture in Kenya was eye-opening, says Amber Martin

Pioneer Press (a newspaper in St Paul, Minnesota, USA)
May 09, 2005

Immersion in deaf culture in Kenya was eye-opening

Amber Martin attended mainstream schools while growing up in St. Paul. Martin, who is deaf, started becoming involved with the deaf community during high school.

Since 2003, the 28-year-old has been president of the board of Global Deaf Connection, an organization that provides scholarships and sign language interpreters for deaf adults in developing countries. Recently, Martin led a team of volunteers to Kenya, where they worked with administrators, sign language interpreters and deaf students at a teacher's college.

"I got to know many of the students personally. Even though we grew up in vastly different countries, we share many of the same stories because we are deaf. At the same time, we have many differences because the Kenyan deaf education system has lagged behind ours. None of the students at college now had teachers who could sign fluently, and their education suffered. But now, with these deaf students pioneering the way for future children, that work will continue to change deaf education in Kenya.

"Kenyan culture is very rich and very respectful. In Kenya, respect for authority is extremely important, so it is important you acknowledge others' work and generosity. The deaf culture is very collective. There is a lot of support for each other and a very communal spirit.

"We had a period of training before we went to work. We had a deaf Kenyan culture facilitator who gave us a crash course in Kenyan culture and the deaf community there.

"Each country has its own sign language just like each country has its own spoken language. Some of the features are similar — such as some facial expression marking questions or emotions — but the vocabulary and grammar are different. Most deaf people can learn and adjust to KSL very quickly.

"We were immersed in the culture 24 hours a day, from breakfast to bedtime. We learned to eat new foods. We learned to negotiate our way through each day. We had to learn how to request transportation.

"When you travel, you go through certain stages of culture shocks. For some people, the novelty is terrific and makes everything look great. For the people adjusting to something new, it's more difficult, especially if they don't know what to expect.

"Later, both types of people start to merge toward the middle. You start to notice you can't have cold water every day or hot water when you shower. At the same time, you start to appreciate things you might not have noticed or things you can't get in the United States, like the very laid-back pace.

"I learned 80 percent of leading is just having the confidence to make decisions. The other 20 percent was accepting and admitting if the decisions do not turn out as planned.

"I also learned everyone has his or her own skill to contri-bute and a big part of my leadership role is finding out what those skills are and how to empower the team members to use their skills."

By Rhoda Fukushima, Pioneer Press