October 20th – December 3rd, 2019
The first part of this blog was written about a month or so ago…It occurred after a couple days of meeting her because I was filled with an emotion I still can’t place my finger on. The following is an update on where her and I reside now…
Without further ado…Meet my baby girl…Sara.
We call her Sara.
It’s a new name given to her as of yesterday October 26th. For probably the first time in 10 years… she has a name.
Sara came to Chime around October 20th to help a friend of mine with her baby. People hire distant nieces or younger children to have as their maid in the house. This is something seen as completely normal. These girls help the moms take care of the babies and keep the house fully functioning, and in return, the girls have a place to stay and a place to eat and can earn a little money for themselves or for their families. Sometimes the houses are welcoming and loving and treat these girls like they were their own. Some, however, are the opposite… I am sure you can imagine what that is like.
“By the way Izzy, Melat hired a new girl to help take care of the baby when she goes to work. The girl cannot hear.” Abeba said nonchalantly as we walk back from market.
“What?” I whipped my head towards Abeba and asked again.
“What did you just say?”It was true. Abeba’s friend had hired a new maid who was Deaf.
“Does she know sign language?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think she knows any language.” She responded.
My heart immediately started pounding faster.
“Can I see her?” I asked.
“Of course! Melat wants you to teach her sign language if you can.” She said.
“If I can… If I can…OF COURSE I can and OF COURSE I will.”, I thought to myself.
The following day I went to Melat’s house and was shown the girl. She was skinny and shy and put out her hand to greet me like she was nervous and didn’t know what to do. I immediately defaulted to all my sign language forgetting that she couldn’t understand and she looked at me with a crooked smile. “Oh my God….,” I thought to myself…. How on earth am I going to do this? This girl has absolutely no language.
I sat there with a group of people looking at this girl and I almost broke down right then and there.
She was ten years old. It was said that at age 3 she got sick with the measles and lost her hearing. After that, my guess is that she was kept in the house and hidden from the outside world. My guess is that after the mom found out she was Deaf that she let her sit in a room with nothing, with no stimulation, with no love. Deaf people in the rural villages are seen as dumb and incapable here. They are seen as something God cursed them with. My heart… My heart was filled with sorrow. I don’t know if I could ever describe the heart wrenching pain that seared my body as I sat and watched her. How could they just leave her? How could they not teach her…How could they not give her a name.
“What is her name?” I asked.
They all shrugged their shoulders and said, “I don’t think she has a name.”
I shook my head and looked at the floor.
She has no name, she has no language, she has no education, she has point blank…. Nothing.
I took out my phone and showed her a video of a person signing and tried to convey that I knew this and that I was going to teach her, she smiled and looked at me with confusion but there was a slight look like she might have understood.
I returned a few days later. Prepared. I went to Jimma so I could print out some materials to help teach her. This is going to be hard. I thought to myself, really freaking hard.
“What if she doesn’t want to learn?” “What if she doesn’t like me?” All these thoughts swarming in my mind.
She will like me, she will want to learn. I tried to force out all the negative thoughts. I have to at least try.
I arrived and greeted her like normal and sat down and handed her a jacket and a pair of tights I had grabbed in Jimma. I knew she didn’t have much and I wanted it to be my peace offering. I knew that the color of my skin might intimidate her and wanted her to feel comfortable. She tried on the jacket. Perfect fit.
I pulled out some paper and a piece of paper with the alphabet in sign language on it.
I started going through each letter showing her my fingers and then fixing hers. She had her crooked smile but this time, there was a sparkle in her eyes. Then a coffee ceremony was brought out and I went through all the materials pointing at each one and then making the sign and making her sign it with me and eventually she could do it on her own as I pointed to materials and gave her a questioning look and she would give me the correct sign in return.
“What’s her name? Have you guys decided on one? She must have a name.” I said.
“Uhhm… Sara.” They said.
I smiled and wrote down on a piece of paper all of our four names. I wrote down mine and pointed to it and pointed to myself. I then pointed to her name and made my hand form the shape of an S and put it next to my cheek and twisted it and put my hand on her chest. “You, this is you.” I tried to convey. We continuously went through these rotations of signs and then eventually I pulled out a video of a lady signing a children’s book with pictures in the background.
Sara’s eyes lit up and watched along and kept pointing to the video and looking back at me and I would nod and show her the signs of the animals that were incorporated. She had this huge smile on her face watching along. We then pulled out a coloring book and she flipped through the pages and would point at the picture and then look at me as if saying “Okay, how do you sign this one”. Some of the pictures she would point to and then try to sign herself, like when she saw a picture of a motorcycle, she imitated driving a motorcycle.
“YES!” I shouted and gave her the thumbs up.
After our first few lessons, we sat and looked at each other. Her big brown beady eyes looking at me with this sort of relief, she then started to try and sign/gesture to me, she was feeling more comfortable. She touched my face with a questioning look and then touched her own. I laughed and said “Yes, I am forengie.” Probably the first one she had ever encountered, probably had no idea people this light existed.
She then touched her throat as if to say she couldn’t speak and I took her hand and put it on my throat and said a word and then I put my hand on her throat and she let out a bellowing sound and we all laughed.
We then let loose and she took the little stuffed animal I gave her and played around with it. I took it and made it travel up her arm to give her a big kiss on the cheek and she laughed and tried to do the same to me. This time though, I acted like I was scared and squished my shoulder up to my cheek and she slapped my hand as if to say “common now”. I laughed and let her have the stuffed animal travel up my arm and land a peck on my cheek.
She kept looking at me and then back to the woman who hired her as she was equally trying to learn sign to communicate with her as well.
After a few hours I tried to convey to her that I would be back tomorrow, and she nodded her head as if she understood. Melat then looked at her and did a hug gesture and Sara looked back at me with the biggest smile and love in her eyes and I gave her the biggest swinging hug I could as my heart felt like it would explode.
“I already love you.” I thought.
My dearest Sara.
You are a shining light. You are smart, you are kind, and you are brave.
You are Oh so brave my child and I, Isabella Mullins, am a puddle in your hands.
I may not know what I am doing, but Lord you can bet your money on me that I am going to give my damndest to give this child everything she deserves.”
Like I said earlier…. This part was written a couple of days after I had had a couple interactions with Sara. I truly, 100 percent felt like I was a puddle in her hands. That I would do anything for her.
I started visiting Sara at Melat’s house every evening around 4:30 pm. Our relationship grew strong quickly. I was the one person I think Sara felt like she could connect with because I gave her the attention, I am sure she was deprived of for so long. Every day I would show up and she would pull out the papers and pictures and would be ready to start learning immediately. We went through the materials around the house, labeling everything and then started going through the alphabet which she knew how to draw out with her fingers. She was sharp. She was picking up on all the pictures I had printed out for her to learn within two days, she had them down which left me stunned and mad that I didn’t print out more. I felt like the signs were just making sense in her head.
Unfortunately, it was panning out that Sara and the family weren’t getting along as well as they would have liked. I would come, teach, and play with Sara and then would I would leave. Then, Sara would act like she didn’t know sign language when the family would try with her, as if she would just shut down when I left. This was leaving the family frustrated and angry that she wasn’t helping out around the house like she “should” be doing.
I tried my best to tell them to give me time, that she is only ten years old and doesn’t know much of anything yet. I told them to let me come over when they wanted her to do chores and I could make sure to get down all the sign language vocab related to the chore. I didn’t want them to send her back home, so I figured I would try to make the family happy and then would focus on another vocab afterwards.
One of the chores was to have Sara fetch water. I decided that I wanted to take her for a walk down the main street to see how she was as they told me she sometimes seems to lose her balance. We headed out and I tried to convey to her that we were going for a walk. We strolled hand in hand down the street me pointing at things and her signing what the respective sign was. “What is this?” I would sign to her. “Tree!” she would sign with excited eyes. She seemed to be enjoying herself and I was feeling proud. It felt easier to teach her while actually being out and about instead of being cooped up in the house.
The next day I decided that Sara could indeed fetch water, so we grabbed 2 five liters for me and then 1 five liter for her. I told her to grab the jerry can and that we were going to head to the water. We walked out of the house hand in hand again signing to each other and Konjo (Mom dog) following behind us. A few people looked at me like I was a crazy person and I for the first time…truly didn’t care. (“This dang forengie is talking to this little girl with her hands?? and has a dog behind her?? She is so weird.” I imagined them saying.)
I weirdly had this internal protective sense over Sara. I kept having the thought run into my head……If anyone messes with this girl because she can’t speak or if anyone does anything to make fun of her, I will rip their heads off. Straight freaking off I thought.
I couldn’t help it either, I told myself to calm down, but it was as if she instantly became my little sister…my little girl. I wanted to protect the world from her. I wanted to give her everything, because she deserved it.
As we walked there was a group of girls sitting in the grass hanging out and they decided to wait until Sara, and I, made it back from fetching water. As we passed, they asked me about her, and I said she cannot talk but that she talks with her hands. They seemed like they didn’t understand and then one of the girls got up and walked with us home. I then turned to her and asked if she wanted to learn “hand language” and she smiled and said yes. I then taught her the greeting that I had taught Sara earlier. The little girl looked at Sara feeling awkward but signed to Sara the greeting and Sara let out a slow smile and did it back. We then turned and walked down the trail together like it was the most normal thing in the world. I smiled at the quick adapter and told her that Sara was smart and that I could teach her “hand language” so they could talk. The girl giggled but seemed up for the challenge.
Sara and I still see each other almost every evening. We have tried to play games with the family and learn as a group so that they can all get along a little better. Some Days I walk in and can feel the tension between them and hope that with some games it can lessen the animosity. Sara and I have gone over most of the basics of the chores she needs to do, but still needs help learning how to care for a baby since she doesn’t know too much about that. (I hate that the first things I have to teach Sara are this….as I think how this girl is only ten…but I want Sara to stay and not get sent back so I promised the family that I will get her to do the chores they ask).
Every time I walk into the house, Sara’s face lights up and I swear the jolt in my chest will never go away. I had wished she could live with me and I could sign all day with her and teach her life with Sign Language, but I know that, that is impossible. I am looking forward to teaching her more, even though it has proven to be difficult. My biggest challenge now is teaching her the alphabet. We get through it but she gets unmotivated easily and I think it is because she doesn’t know or understand why it is important. But we are getting there nonetheless.
I still feel like I have no idea what I am doing, but I am starting to be able to understand Sara a little bit more every day and to me…. That feels like a little bit of progress.
The other day as I sat with Sara washing clothes, she signed to me that there was a small bird that came into the house and that they had to grab it to help escort it out. I turned to Melat and asked if this was true and Melat looked at me with a surprised reaction…
“Yes, there was! Did she just tell you that??” she asked.
“Yes, she is so smart” I said with a soft smile and looked at Melat with pleading eyes. Give her a chance. Please.
Sara and I end every session with a big hug, and I kiss her forehead and she gives me the look like “now I get to kiss yours”. So, we kiss each other’s’ forehead and with another hug we sign I love you to each other although, I am not sure she knows exactly what it means, but hopefully someday she will.
The thought of her leaving and being sent home…or me leaving in a little over three months is petrifying. I feel like I have this deadline and need to teach her as many things as possible before I leave. But deep down I just want to take her with me. I want to give her the world.
My heart feels heavy as I write this and think about that time that will come before I’m ready.
The time where I am not sure Sara will ever have anyone like me to speak to again. This thought makes me want to curl up into a ball and cry…. “What if what I am doing right now is pointless, what if she never gets the chance to get to a place where she can continue to learn?
What if all of this is…. futile?”
What a life I have been living….What a life.
P.S If anyone has tips or tricks to teaching a Deaf child sign language please comment or email me! I’d love to hear from you!