/ 5 May 2020

How coronavirus is affecting Kenya’s hearing impaired citizens

Martinnjoroge Illustration
A teacher at the Horizon Sign Language Training Centre in Nakuru, Martin Ndung’u took it upon himself to spread the word.

This story is part of a series called ‘On the Frontline’, first published in The Continent, which profiles some of the heroes on the frontline of Africa’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Download your free copy of The Continent here.

When President Uhuru Kenyatta first announced measures to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus in Kenya, one million of his countrymen were unable to hear him speak.

With no sign language interpreters accompanying Kenyatta’s address on March 15, which provided the details of the measures his government was putting in place, Kenya’s deaf community was on the back foot from the word go. 

Many turned to social media to understand what was going on, but fake news and false information is rife. Among those left in limbo was Martin Ndung’u Njoroge. Born deaf in Nakuru 28 years ago, he could not understand why the country had been thrown into a frenzy until his wife explained that, with the first case in the country now confirmed, Covid-19 had arrived in Kenya.

It was a Damascus moment. “It hit me that the hearing impaired could not understand the impact of the disease, as many weren’t able to follow Uhuru’s speech and other announcements,” said Njoroge.

A teacher at the Horizon Sign Language Training Centre in Nakuru, Njoroge took it upon himself to spread the word. He started one-on-one conversations with colleagues and students, but when he had to switch to social media after the government banned public gatherings, he realised he could reach many more people through Facebook, WhatsApp and forms of other social media.

He said that many people had either been oblivious to what was going on or had been misled by fake news. “I remember when the president announced that schools were closing temporarily, many of the deaf thought it was for school holidays,” Njoroge said. “Many missed the directive that they should be home within three days and going home was very hectic for kids who were staying at the school.”

He took it upon himself to debunk myths and combat misinformation about the coronavirus by creating and sharing videos, animated GIFs and even plays.

“The deaf are very visual and pictures can sometimes be better than text,” said Njoroge. “As the virus spreads to different counties in the country I share updates with my deaf families on these platforms.”

His videos have proved enormously popular, racking up as many as three million views.

Njoroge said that before creating the videos to educate others he first had to educate himself, and began learning how to counter myths and misconceptions about the virus with facts. 

“Some of the deaf actually believed the virus came from bats and snakes. My videos had to come with a counter narrative for this, and communicates the basics  — including handwashing and what to do when one falls ill, ” he said.

Many in the deaf community were especially anxious about seeking treatment, considering the struggles they experience at government facilities at the best of times because of the language barrier. Njoroge took particular care to share emergency contact information  and where to find quarantine facilities in his videos.

“A lady whose son is deaf told me that no matter how much she tried to explain to him about corona, he couldn’t quite understand,” he said. “But after watching a video I’d made, the young man could relate and actually started observing the code of rules set by the government.” 

That young man was not alone. Njoroge said some of the basic instructions from the government, including the directive to wear masks in public places, were not well understood by the deaf community and after being turned away from malls and the flea markets they worried about being mistreated by the authorities. 

So he filmed a short play to explain why they risked arrest should they fail to wear a mask and how they should handle them.

“The wearing and removing of the masks was a great concern,” Njoroge said. “Many did not understand what type of masks they should wear and how they should remove them safely and dispose of them without destroying the environment.” 

Njoroge said he was proud of the recognition his work had received, but said there was still a large communication gap between the government and the deaf community, and has made an appeal for sign language interpreters to be present in hospitals and the quarantine centres.

“In Mombasa, a deaf man contracted the coronavirus but could not communicate with doctors at the hospital. It was hard for him to understand why he even needed to stay in a quarantine centre.” 

Njoroge was especially concerned about hearing impaired children falling behind at school. The government has instituted an e-learning programme for primary and secondary schools, but Njoroge said it did not make provision for deaf pupils.

“If they can’t follow along, it will be hard for them to catch up with the curriculum once schools reopen,” Njoroge said. “And yet they are still meant to sit for the national examinations at the end of the year.” 

Being left behind was a concern he felt for adults too, and Njoroge said he believed the government should set aside special funding for the deaf community.

“Many cannot afford even the masks that are being sold in the streets. Feeding their families has also been tricky, considering many rely on manual labour.  They struggle every day and I know so many who go to sleep hungry,” Njoroge said. “I hope the government will hear us this time.”