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February 8, 2003

Teacher finds keys to break sound barrier

From: Urbana/Champaign News-Gazette, IL - 08 Feb 2003


URBANA – Gloria Kampondeni is going back to Malawi with new methods of helping deaf children there communicate with each other and with people in their communities.
With her, she is taking seven solar-powered hearing aids made especially for people who live in developing countries where high-tech equipment means big maintenance problems.
And she's taking back what she has been learning here about a communications system new to the country: sign language.
“Teaching in Malawi is all oral,” said Kampondeni, the first teacher of deaf children in the country who is deaf herself, of her chief reason for coming to the United States to learn signing systems.
“All deaf teachers in my country are hearing, and they don't understand,” she said. “They think when people sign, they're like mad people. It's painful.”
Even though her hearing is nonexistent in one ear and very limited in the other, Kampondeni speaks both English and Chechewa, Malawi's native language, perfectly. She didn't lose her hearing until she was in her early 30s, so she communicates very well verbally, but she recognizes that doesn't work well for children and other people who were either born deaf or lost their hearing while very young.
She is visiting the United States for six weeks, with a 10-day stay in Champaign-Urbana, because friends of the country and her cause brought her here to learn what she needs to know.
Chris Locher, coordinator of Urbana schools' hearing impaired program, is her local host.
“I'm part of First Presbyterian Church of Urbana, and we've done exchanges to Malawi to dig shallow wells,” Locher said. “I've been there twice, and I visited the school where she teaches, Montfort College and Centre for Education of the Deaf.”
“She wanted to come to the U.S. to learn new teaching methods, I talked to a lot of people and we did fund-raising,” she said.
Locher said her church, the Illinois Teachers of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Individuals organization and individuals in the area and in Jacksonville, where Kampondeni will visit after she leaves the area Tuesday, helped pay for the trip. Kampondeni will also travel to Seattle to visit another American contact with interest in deaf education.
This week, Kampondeni spent time in Urbana schools. At King School, she told youngsters, including hearing impaired students of Vicki Smith, about her home.
“Malawi is called the warm heart of Africa,” she said. “People there are very friendly.”
“We have lions, giraffes and elephants,” Kampondeni said, producing carved statues of those animals. “Not all children go to school. Some are sent to take care of the goats.”
She said she wants more options for her children at Montfort.
“We want to make sure the children who can succeed with oral learning know we're proud of them,” Kampondeni said. “It's very hard. But we want children who cannot learn that way to have the support and help they need. More will succeed if we have access to hearing aids and new technology. And some need the option of sign language.”
That could include many deaf adults in Malawi. Locher took Kampondeni to a Bible study discussion attended by deaf adults, and she was moved to tears.
“In Malawi, most adults never go to school, and when deaf people encounter a deaf person with speech, they think you're talking about them,” she said. “Most meetings end in quarrels. We have to hold hands together and work together. They don't understand.”
Since sign language is discouraged or even repressed, there's no standardized system linking signs with words that mean something in Chechewa, and that's something Kampondeni plans to change.
She said there are four schools for the deaf in the country, all run by the Catholic Church, and one small class in another district far away that teaches sign language.
Locher said she became interested in deaf education when she was a child and her parents took her brother, who is blind, and several deaf children to special lessons in Champaign.
“When I was in seventh grade, they came home and it was just starting to snow, big, pretty flakes,” she said. “The deaf children started making noises, and my brother couldn't understand. Right then, I had a big epiphany. I realized the problem with deafness is not necessarily having the speech, it's not having the words. And we have learned that words can be expressed in many forms.”
Kampondeni, who teaches about 100 deaf children at home, said she knows she's on the right track when she watches deaf children who can't grasp verbal expression make up their own sign language to talk to each other.
“Children who are completely deaf have so much more trouble than me,” she said. “And more are being born. I want to help fight for them. I wish I had longer, but I hope to come back.”
“I want her to leave here with a sense of hope,” Locher said. “Hope for the deaf people in Malawi and elsewhere in the world. There's a lot of potential for them to be included in everyday life, even if it takes a while. This is a very important step.”