Turning off into the dusty Sam Nujoma Drive, we ask one of the gentlemen standing in front of an abandoned office for the directions to David’s office.
As I lower the window of my car, this stranger leans forward almost as if to put his whole head into the car. Because I am used to imperfect strangers at traffic lights in Windhoek, I immediately sprung to grab my cell phone, wallet and tablet.
“I want to see Mr. David,” I tell him. In what sounded like Nigerian English mixed with Afrikaans for “what?” this man’s whole head is now in my car, through the window.
Aggressively, I open the door of my car, and he retreats and murmurs something with a hand gesture for me to follow him.
As I follow him, I am debating within myself whether this is a genuine Nigerian or someone from around here who cannot speak English.
We pass through an office where a lady waves at me.
Seated in a sparsely furnished room with a lot of books piled in front of him is a thin, tall dark man. He looks young but something tells me, is wearing him out.
“Welcome my name is Sebulon Nghilifavali David. I have been expecting you. I hope you did not have any problems with Ferdinand here. He is one of my deaf students.”
Then it dawns on me that my guide, Ferdinand’s strange behaviour outside was because he is hard of hearing and was trying to listen to me while reading my lips. A sense of guilty and apologeticness strikes.
And for the first 30 minutes of our two hour meeting, I barely gather anything that Sebulon is saying. I am lost in thought. A computer scientist and lecturer at Unam? Why would he quit his job in 2011 just to work with the marginalised? It doesn’t make sense.
“Tate Institute of Technology Computing and Research Centre is a facility on applied research on disability in Namibia on areas like science, education, health and communication. I designed it to be a system of inclusive education meant to empower not the disadvantaged but the disabled youth. I have operated it for three years without a single cent from anyone,” says Sebulon.
This one-of-a-kind researcher goes deep into the villages and takes disadvantaged people, particularly the deaf, the hearing- impaired and the marginalised of society. Sebulon believes that physical impairment is self evident and can be dealt with.
He adds, “My main campus is in the village. We use a top-bottom approach and none of these people here have paid a cent to be here. Why should I ask for money from the vulnerable? They won’t come. We have designed a new curriculum and system for them to get education. We teach them how to read and write as well as computers, developing software and even fixing them. Have you ever wondered why all the deaf people are not in our schools today? The system frustrates them, we fail to understand their culture and they opt out and others are just filtered by the system so that they do not make it past grade 10. There are no accredited certificates for them here, but I can tell you that over the years products of this institute are working in government and other jobs where they can now get a living.”
A class of 21 deaf and hearing-impaired students is underway as the interview progresses. The average age is 25 and flipping through their education material, even a grade 5 learner can read these books. They are eleven men and 10 women in this class, including Ferdinand.
Sebulon teaches them digital literacy, sign literacy and a new language he crafted called virtual deaf language. The later is a combination of street language combined with sign language to form a word close to normal English.
On the wall of this run-down classroom is a piece of paper representing a chalk board with some of these virtual deaf language; “I go Oshakati,” “Me sick.”
Sebulon explains, “This is because in sign language, short cuts are common but not in English. We cannot fast track them from not knowing to full learning. Rather we should enhance the communication between their world and our world. How do you teach a 40 year old who doesn’t know how to read and write? First give them what they will enjoy, just like a small child, toys. In this case, computers, IT, and then the rest of the process follows.”
This is not a school, it is like a rehabilitation centre and Sebulon shows a list of names on the waiting list ready to be taken in for classes, some from as far as Eenhana. Striking is the fact that this Executive Director and Researcher has never attended any sign language lessons.
They taught him and now he is teaching them.
There is a culture of deafness that the hearing does not know, he says.
“They are very good with practical work, logical thinking, software designing and seem to know better than some of us. I remain motivated by the fact that Eenhana was a war zone and the social life was affected heavily. A lot has not been done to upgrade the living standard of the people.”
But there is no easy walk in every journey.
“My main challenge is acceptance. People, including my own neighbours have not understood what I am doing here hence I lack support. These people did not choose to be deaf, social workers are needed here, NGOs should come and teach them about AIDS, they are poor; they are left out of every system. I am tired of travelling to Windhoek for funding.”
As a result, he has begun fixing computers for people in the town of Eenhana, employing some of the students to work in his computer repairs and accessories shop next door and the proceeds are shared between the students and their lecturer. Five old desktops are on a desk, which he uses for an internet café and the money is used to pay rent for the building.
“I am paying N$8000 each month for this place and some of the offices are not occupied because I have a vision with this building. Just one day,” he says with emphasis.
As I walk out, I discover that Yuri who had helped connect my internet the previous day at the municipality also works at Tate Institute.
Then he Sebulon stops, makes a few gestures and then informs me that he has to drive to the village to visit one of the deaf students who just lost his mother.
It hits me and finally makes sense, although we are directly involved in impacting the lives of those with disabilities, an equally important task is to invite able-bodied members of society to a greater awareness of the essential role that people with disabilities have to play in communities - teaching lessons that only they can teach. PF