17-year-old Sada Igikundiro was born deaf and when she was six years old she also lost her sight. Sada could no longer communicate with the outside world and life turned into a passive waiting at home for another day to pass. But thanks to a project where deafblind people learn to communicate using tactile sign language, her life changed.
Rwanda's well-organized capital Kigali, with its flamboyant greenery and pleasant climate, is reminiscent of a Mediterranean city. The drive to Sada's home village in the countryside takes about two hours. The fine asphalt road runs up and down long slopes in this small East African nation that is usually called "the land of a thousand mountains". Many of the tourists who come here take the same route from the capital when they go out into the terrain and look for the country's well-known mountain gorillas.
The contrasts are great as we turn off the main road in the province of Musanze to take the last bit to Sada's family. The perfect asphalt is replaced by a difficult cracked, barely drivable road over red soil and the driver has great difficulty getting us over the last slopes before we reach Sada's house.
Sada's mother Hawa Uzamukunda says she has ten children, but also points out that she is usually corrected by Sada when she says so. Only eight of the children are still alive. She works in agriculture and Sada's father usually helps other families with various chores. Three of the couple's children still live at home in the family's small house.
Today, Sada is in a great mood. Soon it will be time to once again leave home and travel to Kigali to participate in new training days at the Masaka Resource Center for the Blind. There she has also met other deafblind people who after a long time in isolation have had the opportunity to learn to communicate with the outside world.
- It's great fun to go to Kigali, I'm happy to leave home, says Sada and shines up.
It used to be worse, she says. After Sada's vision disappeared, several years followed in which the impression from the surroundings was almost completely absent. Thanks to Sada being able to look forward to the age of six, she had learned sign language, but as a deafblind person, she was still isolated in her home and enclosed in her own world. Most of the time she was sitting at home, or lying in her bed.
- It was awful, I was sad and angry. I just sat at home from morning to night and could no longer see what was happening around me. I slept way, way too much and felt very alone, she says.
Fidele Irizabimbuto translates and interprets her words. Fidele is one of the few sign language interpreters in Rwanda who can also communicate with deafblind people. This is done through tactile sign language, a form of communication that is based on the speakers using signs that are received with the feeling and by their hands following each other in the movements. Fidele is one of the two interpreters who through the project have trained Sada's ability to communicate using tactile sign language. When Sada and Fidele communicate, their hands run quickly up and down, back and forth, with the interruption of Sada laughing or smiling a little embarrassed, like any young person who gets questions about his life.
The project for the deafblind at Masaka Center was the turning point for Sada
The turning point came in 2011. Then Sada's mother was contacted by a representative of the deafblind project who had heard about her daughter and wanted her to take her to a meeting in Kigali. At first, Hawa was hesitant. The family was unsure of what Sada would do. But after another call, the first trip was off. Since then, much has changed in the family's life.
Through the project, both Sada and Hawa have received recurring training in tactile sign language at the Masaka Center. And even though Hawa says that she is still far from perfect, she can now communicate in a completely different way with her daughter today than before.
- Life has changed a lot. In the past, Sada was so isolated. Thanks to the training, she has started to move more and is much happier. Before, Sada did not know what was happening around her, but now I can communicate much better with her. If we are going to buy a new item of clothing, I can ask her what color she wants. Then we go together and look and Sada can feel the materials and tell what she wants, says Hawa.
The project has also focused on highlighting everything that Sada is actually able to do, even though she neither sees nor hears. Nowadays she likes to take walks outside the home on her own.
- Before, I was sad and angry and used to just sit here at home without doing anything. I felt bad and was not used to moving. Nowadays I often go out and then I usually feel forward. In the beginning when I started going out I became very tired because I had become so weakened in my body. I stumbled a lot. It happens even now sometimes, but not as often, says Sada.
Even within the walls of the home, Sada's life has changed a lot.
- I can clean, wash, peel and chop sweet potatoes and put it in a pot. I'm not kidding, I can cook! says Sada.
When the isolation broke, the family could look ahead
In Rwanda, it is not uncommon for people around them to believe that families who have children who are deafblind have suffered some kind of punishment for their sins. Sada's mother says that thanks to the project, she has gained a completely different understanding of her daughter's disability.
- The most important thing is that I have learned is to accept the situation. In the past, it felt shameful to have a child like this. But through the education, I have understood that Sada is like any other child, says Hawa.
Through the project, Hawa and Sada have also had the opportunity to meet other families living in a similar situation.
- Before, I thought I was alone in the world about having a child who was deafblind. But after meeting other families, I have understood that this is not the case. Through the education, I have met others who have deafblind children who are far behind Sada, and who have more difficulty. We can communicate better than many others, and I am very happy about that, says Hawa.
After the interview, we go back to Kigali together in our minibus. Once there, it has become pitch dark outside and it is crowded with vehicles and people out on the street where we stop. Sada quickly steps out of the front seat, unfolds her articulated white cane, takes her mother by the arm and moves quickly in the direction of the hostel where they are to sleep. At eight o'clock the next morning, Sada waves goodbye to her mother, before starting a new day of training at the Masaka Center.