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First ever summer school in Africa for and by deaf academics

Academic studies or an academic career are a big challenge if you are deaf. Particularly in Africa, where many countries don’t even have secondary schools for the deaf. A team of Leiden academics has organised the first summer school for and by deaf academics on the African continent, in Ghana. We spoke to the organisers – some of whom are deaf themselves – just before they left.

‘It really is a unique event,’ says senior university lecturer Victoria Nyst. She has conducted years of research at Leiden University into the many sign languages that are used on the African continent. She and some of her PhD candidates are the driving force behind the African School for Deaf Studies, a summer school that is being held in Accra, Ghana from 1 to 16 August. The participants come from 11 different African countries and are all deaf. Nyst: ‘This is the first time that such an international, academic event for the deaf is being held in Africa.’

Deaf participants and lecturers

Many of the lecturers, eminent academics in the field of deafness and sign languages, are themselves deaf. They and the participants will spend two weeks exchanging knowledge about research into deafness, sign languages and everything related to this. This will all be in sign language. ‘That means that this is the first time that many participants can approach their discipline or studies without any barriers,’ says Nyst. She is particularly looking forward to the community that is sure to arise. ‘This will be the first time that they as deaf people will not be in the minority, the first time that they can approach their discipline or studies virtually without barriers.’

Lectures at the African School for Deaf Academics are – obviously – given in sign language.
Lectures at the African School for Deaf Academics are – obviously – given in sign language.

The participants will also be able to expand their often small circle of deaf acquaintances and like-minded people. ‘Even in Europe, it’s not easy as a deaf person to do a university degree and to go into research,’ says Nyst. ‘So if you consider that there aren’t even secondary schools for the deaf in many African countries, you can appreciate the obstacles our participants have had to overcome to get to university. They are often the only deaf person there.’ The summer school is bringing them together for the first time – with an academic aim rather than just for the sake of it. ‘We hope it will also result in new partnerships and research projects.

Comparing old and new sign languages

PhD candidate Marta Morgado is also closely involved in the summer school. She is deaf and has worked as a teacher at a school for the deaf in Portugal. For her PhD research, she is comparing the sign languages in two small villages, one in Ghana and one in Ivory Coast. ‘The village in Ghana has a long history of deaf inhabitants and thus also has its own sign language. The village in Ivory Coast has only recently had a deaf community, so the sign language there is fairly new.

Morgado will give lectures at the summer school on compiling sign-language dictionaries and literature in sign language. She has experience of both: she has already complied two dictionaries for sign languages that are used in Guinea-Bissau and has written books in sign language. In fact, these were bilingual books, in Portuguese and Portuguese sign language. ‘The deaf community has a strong storytelling culture. Look on YouTube: it’s full of videos of stories in sign language.’ As yet, there are few stories by deaf people from Africa. Morgado hopes to inspire the participants to share their stories too. ‘And that they, in turn, will inspire other deaf people in their home country.’

Marta Morgado (right, behind the video camera) collects the stories of African deaf people. The deaf community has a strong storytelling culture.

Share knowledge in home country

Morgado explains that one of the main aims of the summer school is for participants to pass on knowledge in their home country. This is also because of the level of interest in the summer school: there was room for 20 participants, but over 70 applications were received. ‘We hope that the participants who were selected will pass on all the information to their compatriots who weren’t. And that they will, for instance, compile dictionaries at home, having attended my lecture.’

Eminent academics and participants exchange knowledge about research into deafness, sign languages and everything related to this.
Eminent academics and participants exchange knowledge about research into deafness, sign languages and everything related to this.

Documenting African sign languages

The idea for the summer school arose from the fascination of PhD candidate Timothy Mac-Hadjah and his colleagues for African sign languages. ‘It means we can give something back to the users of the languages that we so enjoy studying. The aim of the summer school is to provide the participants with the latest academic insights and research skills.’ He hopes that this will enable them to document the many African sign languages that have yet to be recorded.

Mac-Hadjah conducts research in Nyst’s group into the way in which sign languages are influenced by the gestures of the hearing. ‘I’m looking in particular at when this happens: is it only when the sign language develops or at a later stage too? I’m comparing Ghanese sign language with American sign language.’ Mac-Hadjah comes from Ghana and is responsible for the logistics of the summer school. ‘I studied and worked at the University of Ghana, our partner for the summer school, which makes it easier.

The summer school is bringing together deaf African academics for the first time. This should result in new partnerships and research.

Mac-Hadjah will also look at language use during the summer school itself. ‘All lectures, workgroups and discussions will, of course, be in sign language. Each participant can use the sign language from their own country and possibly a second local sign language too. But by no means all participants use the international sign language. As a linguist, I’m really intrigued to see how this will work, and whether the participants manage to communicate with each other anyway.’

Improve the position of deaf people in Africa

The Leiden team hopes to make the summer school an annual event that is held in a different African country each year. This should make it accessible to more people. Nyst: ‘These deaf students and researchers are the policymakers of the future.’ The deaf communities in Africa are increasingly working on strengthening their position, under the motto nothing about us, without us: they want to be involved in decisions relating to deaf people and sign languages. ‘Sharing knowledge, with each other and with European and American academics and practitioners, will further this mission.’

Text: Marieke Epping
Photos: Victoria Nyst
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