Today was worth the cost of the trip ten times over. If I had to pick one day, thus far, that made me feel alive with excitement over what kind of work I'm doing here, it was today. We were with our second HODASSU organization, also with Ustis and also in Jinja. This second Jinja group of children are deaf. I have (minimal) experience with sign-language but found that minimal is plenty to communicate with these incredibly unique and truly beautiful children. They all have slight tendencies to act out for attention, especially a particular few, but when it comes time for them to have the attention, the fear of sounding or appearing silly dominates their insecurities and they shy away. Some of the children hid their heads in their arms, covered up their smiles with their hands, and even refused to stand up and share their names with the class. Each child has a Ugandan surname, a European name (Lillian, Winnie, etc.), and a sign-name, and before we began teaching, the class asked us if they could share their names with us. The Fount of Mercy group stood up in the front of the room while each child went in rowed succession, sharing their sign-name first, followed by the other names. After we heard the names of the children, each of us signed the letters of our names and then the children all assigned (as a class decision) each Fount member a sing-name. I love my sign name, mostly because it feels very personal to have them assign a name to me within five minutes of knowing me. My sign name is both pointer fingers on either side of my mouth while smiling. Ustis tells me it's indicating my dimples. (I only have one dimple, but I'm not going to mention that because I don't want them to change my name!)
While we wait for the Head Teacher of the school (and also our supposed translator) to lead us outside, I decide not to waste time and begin my lesson with the chalk board. I write three words on the board: 'Music', 'Sing', and 'Rhythm'. The sign for Music and Sing are the same, (possibly because their singing is signing without sound...say that five times fast), so I tell them that I have a sign that I use for singing: five fingers closed at the lips (a la delicious Italian pasta sauce), and pulling the hand up and away while opening the hand fully. They seem to like this because they mimic the sign well ( : The word 'rhythm' is completely new to them. So I have them all clapping, then stomping, then tapping their legs. When I raise my hands above my head to clap they hoot and holler, releasing squeaks and screams of suppressed excitement. This is wonderful because it tells me two things: the first is that they are both excited and able to make sound, and the second, by the extreme force of their sounds, I can tell this is something that they don't do often. How exciting for us to begin voice work!
When the head teacher, Flavia, walks in, she tells them in signage that they will be outside for our lesson. I follow Eustace out to a far side of the school grounds under the shade of a tree. As I walk, the kids grab my hands and I swing their arms up and down and teach them to skip; they sign my new name. Once we're in the shade, we all make a circle; I tell the kids that music and rhythm can be felt by every human on earth, regardless of circumstance. I teach them eight counts of a semi-'step' routine with the same claps, stomps, and leg taps that we did in the classroom. They can do it very well and almost in unison. For the next part of my lesson, my idea is for them to count or make noise on each beat in the step routine so that they can connect their voices (the vibrations of air meeting their vocal chords) with the rhythm in their bodies. The students are incredibly reserved about this idea, and I realize immediately that my lesson is about to adapt.
The translator at this time is Eustace because the primary teacher, Jillian, is sitting on a bench in the corner by the bushes recovering from Malaria. Eustace is looking at me as if to say 'I don't know how to translate that they should be making sound'. He signs the word 'try', all-the-while with a huge smile on his face.
I ask them to sit down, and I begin to take their hands and place it on my throat. I know this seems odd, but for these kids making sound is an incredibly vulnerable thing to do. They are afraid of what they can feel but cannot hear. They are laughing and hanging their heads, even politely pulling away. I turn to Eustace to let him know that what I'm about to say should be signed to the kids. I tell them not to be afraid of their voices. I remind them that no one else in their class can hear them making the sounds- that it's entirely about their feelings.
One at a time I went to each child, took their tiny hand and placed it to my throat, then on my chest bone, on my diaphragm, and on my cheeks, letting them feel the resonance of my voice making sound in my body. I then placed that same hand onto their throats and the other lightly pushing on their diaphragm and helped them to feel- truly feel - the power of their voices for the first time. I don't know if it was my persistence or if it was the agreement from their teacher, but each child made sound! Giggling and laughing, turning red and closing their eyes the whole way through, they took a chance, opened their mouths, and pulsated sound with such force and such pride that both my eyes and theirs were filled with tears.
One of the final kids to make sound (after maybe 20-25 minutes with all the other children) was one of the most self-conscious children, Stella. Stella speaks English as opposed to the local language (possibly from her prior up-bringing), and is very heavy. The kids in the other classes who are not deaf make fun of Stella constantly, laughing at her even as they pass. She is used to being out-cast, and if I had not offered my hand to her, Stella would not have even come outside to participate. When I approach her, she turns her side to me and covers her eyes with her hand. Jillian, who has finally gained interest in the class, has joined the circle sitting on the ground behind Stella. Children will always lower their expectations of themselves in times of vulnerability, especially if someone gives them the 'out', so-to-speak, so I proceeded. Slowly, I took Stella's hand from her eyes, keeping my face positive so when her eyes met mine, she knew it was safe to try. I saw her face change as I made noise, and when she looked at me, I laughed, loud and hard, so she could both see my joy in sharing my voice with her, and feel that same joy reverberating on her hand. I then lifted my eyebrows with the question of 'now you?' and when she didn't object, I slowly lowered her hand to her own throat and took a deep inhale to cue her breath and sound. Not only can Stella make smooth, loud sounds, she can also laugh from her big belly about how wonderful it feels to have the freedom of expression.