Deafness in Sub-Saharan Africa

Article excerpt

Deaf education in sub-Saharan Africa originated in the 19th century, primarily through efforts by hearing European missionaries who typically followed their homelands' oral-only practices. But education became available to only a fraction of the deaf population. In the 20th century, Andrew Foster, a deaf African American missionary and Gallaudet University's first African American graduate, had unparalleled impact on deaf education in the region, establishing 31 schools for the Deaf, training a generation of deaf leaders, and introducing his concept of Total Communication, which embraced both American and indigenous signs. Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa have provided leadership in deaf education, but throughout the region there is growing acceptance of sign language use in school, and secondary and postsecondary education for the Deaf is increasingly available. Some national constitutions safeguard the rights of citizens with disabilities and even recognize indigenous sign languages. International disability organizations, particularly the World Federation of the Deaf, have helped change attitudes and train leaders. Despite some grim present realities, prospects for continued progress are good.

Sub-Saharan Africa is an enormous area geographically, with rich human and material resources. It occupies the bulk of the African continent and consists of 54 countries. The populations of the area represent wide ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity. Despite unlimited potential, progress has been uneven in the region; indeed, sub-Saharan Africa includes some of the poorest counties in the world. Violence, disease, and hunger are endemic in many areas. The current plight of the continent is too complex and too great to treat in detail in the present article, but some comments are in order to provide background on the condition of deaf individuals in the region.

In common with many other parts of the world, such as the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, North Africa, and China, subSaharan Africa came under the influence of European imperialism for a period of several centuries. Local traditions and cultures were repressed and colonial systems were established for the benefit of the imperial countries at the expense of indigenous peoples. In the Berlin Conference of 18841885, the major colonial powers agreed on the partition of Africa. With a few notable exceptions such as Liberia and Ethiopia (the latter of which was invaded and annexed by Italy prior to World War II), all of sub-Saharan Africa came under colonial rule. Great Britain and France were the major powers, but Germany, Portugal, and Belgium also had significant colonies. After World War I Germany lost its colonial empire, mostly to British interests.

The colonial powers, with limited knowledge of the lands they had taken and without the consent of the Africans, carved sub-Saharan Africa into administrative units that served the colonizers' economic purposes but without regard to boundaries between different ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups. In somecases rival kingdoms with historical hostilities were included within the same administrative units, leading to outbreaks of civil unrest following the dissolution of colonial rule that in some nations continue to the present. Europeans administered the area, and education for Africans was limited to a select few Africans who became civil servants under the control of European administrators and who constituted a small, elite middle class.

The impetus for the breakup of the colonial systems in sub-Saharan Africa was supplied by India's struggle for independence from Great Britain, which finally came to fruition in 1947 under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1956 Sudan became the first sub-Saharan African country to achieve independence, beginning a process that extended over two generations and eventually led to the independence of all former colonies in the region. …