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Television and the deaf
October 07, 2009

There is currently a process of consultation going on in Zimbabwe concerning the 2010 Budget. One of the sectors that need to make their voice heard is the Disability Sector. Money is needed for special educational programmes on radio and television for the disabled.

CHIPAWO has for many years been very much involved in arts and media with the deaf, culminating in the first television series in Sign Language in Zimbabwe, 'Handspeak' (2005). Since then CHIPAWO has longed to continue the work by producing a sequel. After the Culture Fund of Zimbabwe came up with some funding, work started in 2008 on 'Action Power'. However spiralling inflation and the slow nature of the work combined to produce a situation whereby the money ran out. Only about US$1 500 would suffice to complete the production so that the deaf in Zimbabwe could at last have another programme in a language they understand and a content they can relate to.

NANGO is the acronym of the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations. Its emblem is an umbrella and that is what it attempts to be - an umbrella body for civil society. Yet by a quirk of Zimbabwean precedent, it is not that. In Zimbabwe a non-governmental organisation is literally and legally defined by the expectation that it is a social welfare organisation and is registered with the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare.

This means that lots of genuinely non-governmental organisations are excluded (CHIPAWO for one) - and consequently do not belong to NANGO. It cannot therefore claim to represent Civil Society.

NANGO was consulted recently by the Ministry of Finance in the new, inclusive government, on the issue of the forthcoming 2010 Budget. Though obviously far too late, it was recognised as a step in the right direction and NANGO held three days of consultations this week with organisations in sectors such as Youth, Disability, Human Rights, Economics, Women, Children and Land and the Environment. CHIPAWO received an invitation to attend the discussions on the Children's Sector. I decided to attend and represent CHIPAWO at the sessions on the Youth Sector as well.

Although CHIPAWO works in many of the sectors in which NANGO's membership is active, it is not registered with the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare. Instead as an arts organisation it is registered with the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe. This is the case with many other arts entities. Take an organisation like Patsimeredu Trust, which is a professional drama company working in the field of HIV/AIDS. These arts organisations do not belong to NANGO yet it was obvious right through the three days that the problems and the measures to be taken in almost all sectors mostly required the involvement of arts, culture and media.

One example was the disability sector. The format for the group discussions was to identify the 10 major socio-economic challenges facing the country, identify sector specific challenges, come up with recommendations concerning revenue and expenditure in the budget and discuss the weaknesses of previous budgets.

One of the most pressing challenges facing the disability sector was identified as being education - education in two senses: one, education of the general public on the challenges and needs of the disabled (or, as they are alternatively known, the 'differently abled'), the other information and education for the disabled themselves, formal and informal, on issues of importance to their lives.

In budgetary terms, what did this mean? It was decided that among other considerations it meant special budgetary allocations to the print and electronic media - newspapers, radio and television - for educational articles, features and programmes for the disabled.

I immediately thought to myself that an example of the impact of the lack of budgetary allocations for expenditure essential for the disabled, is CHIPAWO's work in deaf television.

Zimbabwe Television, contrary to the practice in developed countries of the world, does not pay for programmes, except its own. From time to time it has been able to commission productions but as a general rule for independent producers to get a programme broadcast, the producers have to source their own funding. If it is a programme of an obviously commercial nature, the producers will have to buy the airtime to flight their programme. If it is not, producers may enter into an agreement with the national broadcaster to cover their own costs of production and in return the broadcaster will flight the production free. In addition, producers are offered 50% of the advertising time and may pocket any income so derived.

In 2005 CHIPAWO entered into an agreement with the Danish voluntary development organisation, MS Zimbabwe, to fund a television series in Sign Language for the Deaf. Such an ambition was made possible, not only by CHIPAWO Media's capacity and experience but also by the work that CHIPAWO Programmes had already done with the deaf, in particular at Emerald Hill School for the Deaf in Harare.

The Programmes Unit of CHIPAWO is responsible for three main programmes, Arts Education for Development and Employment (AEDE), Performances and Youth. It is the AEDE programme that is the original and core activity of CHIPAWO. This is the programme in which CHIPAWO works with children at centres in different parts of Harare and neighbouring towns with a syllabus including music, dance, drama and a component dedicated to information and education on issues of importance to children, such as gender, rights and HIV/AIDS.

With the help of a small grant from World University Service (Canada), CHIPAWO established an AEDE centre at Emerald Hill School for the Deaf in Harare a few years after its founding in 1989. On the expiry of the contract with WUS (Canada) the centre received support from UNESCO for a year and the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency (SIDA) for a number of years after that. When there was no funding CHIPAWO subsidised the centre out of its own resources and the school itself also contributed for a period.

In the almost 15 years of its existence - the centre was closed in 2007 owing to lack of funding and the inability of both the school and CHIPAWO to fund it - the Emerald Hill School for the Deaf registered an astonishing series of exceptional achievements, establishing itself in the process as a pioneer in the arts by the deaf in Zimbabwe. The children developed uncanny ability in both modern and traditional dance - where the vibrations of the sound system and those of the drum beat out the rhythm. Once the beat had been grasped, most of the children were able to retain it impeccably for the duration of the dance. They also came up with an excellent marimba ensemble, which played at many CHIPAWO functions and public concerts.

The children had already been doing drama at school so acting out issues or stories from their lives was not a new experience for them. And it was drama where the school registered its first major triumph, a play called "Cry Thinking". The script was developed with the children by a CHIPAWO team. The title derived from one of the testimonies the children were all asked to write, in this case on the topic of 'Growing up deaf', which was the theme of the play. One of the children wrote that every night when she was little, before she slept she would 'cry, thinking' that she was the only deaf child in the world.

The play featured the same story outline, told in two parallel idioms - mime and realism. Basically the realist idiom tried to depict a child, rejoiced over at birth, who is discovered later to be deaf. This introduces discord between the father's family and the mother, as it is she who is blamed. They take their child to various doctors, both Western and African, and they are told that there is nothing that can be done. Then she is sent away to a school to learn with other deaf children. This version of the story ends with the child excitedly trying to tell her family of how she discovered other children who are deaf at the school and all the new things she is being taught. The story ends with a family group in which roles are reversed and it is the deaf child who teaches her family important words of family love - in Sign Language.

The mime version of the story is performed by a main actress and an ensemble. Together they enact the feeling of entrapment (imaged by a large box) when the deaf discover they inhabit a world of silence and they cannot communicate and how they can explore and eventually find a way out. Now they can see and interact with people but these people dismiss them angrily because they cannot speak or hear. Eventually a woman calls them and they begin lessons in Sign Language and then, graduates, they approach the audience and introduce themselves one by one. They enter the audience and start teaching them their names and some basic Signs.

The whole performance comes to a climax with a dazzling dance performance where the cast celebrate their achievement and demonstrate that they have mastered other languages in addition to Sign Language - in this case, dance.

The deaf children performed the play in Germany at the World Festival of Children's Theatre in 2002 and since then it has been screened on Zimbabwe Television.

CHIPAWO's involvement with the deaf led to the introduction of the Deaf Community Programme and a graduate of Emerald School for the Deaf being appointed Deaf Community Officer. Her name was Nyasha Nyamwanza. When she was asked at her interview whether she thought she could do the job, she said bluntly: 'No." Nevertheless she was appointed and she went on to demonstrate in no uncertain terms how far off the mark her estimation of her ability was. It was she who pioneered 'Handspeak', as the television series came to be called, and went on to anchor it until her tragic death cut her inspiring career short.

But before this, another milestone in the development of the arts and disability in Zimbabwe, also a product of the CHIPAWO-Emerald Hill powerhouse, was 'Give Us A Chance'. Financed by the German Government, this was a Handicap and the Girl Child Advocacy Arts Festival, which took place at Emerald Hill School for the Deaf in 2004. Nyasha was the main organiser. The festival featured children from five institutions for the disabled - the deaf and the mentally and physically challenged - as well as from CHIPAWO centres, performing plays related to handicap and the girl child.

On Sunday, 5th June, the first episode of 'Handspeak' went on air. This was the Press Release, written by the CHIPAWO PPR Officer, Bridget Chimboza:

CHIPAWO will on Sunday 5 June 2005 score a first on national television when the first episode of the first television series for and by the deaf will be broadcast. This is a weekly magazine programme in Sign Language entitled Handspeak.

There will be sub-titles so hearing viewers will be able to follow what is being said. Each episode will feature a short lesson on Sign Language, news about and for the deaf, a drama on the topic of the week followed by a discussion with guests on the programme and the Window of Hope - a profile of deaf persons who have, despite the odds, made something of their lives. The series features topics such as love and marriage, careers for deaf people, HIV/AIDS, education, communication with others in the community and entertainment as well as relaxation.

The producer of the programme is Ms Nyasha Nyamwanza, the 'Challenged' Programme Officer in CHIPAWO, herself deaf. Ms Nyamwanza is a graduate of Emerald Hill School for the Deaf and the programme has grown out of the work that the school and CHIPAWO have done together to develop arts education in the deaf community. Nyasha is also the anchor in the show and all the dramas were developed and acted by students at Emerald Hill. Nyasha said the main aim of the programme was to change people's attitudes towards the deaf: "The aim of the programme is to change the way deaf people are perceived in the society by showing that the deaf are just like hearing people" she said. She also said that the programme also seeks to show the problems that the deaf face in Zimbabwe and therefore try to call for action to help the deaf and that there's need to teach Sign Language in order to make communication between the hearing and deaf easier."

The Principal of Emerald Hill School for the Deaf is Sister Tariro Chimanyiwa, is also the Chairperson of the National Council for the Deaf. She has given the project unwavering support and she felt that the programme would go a long way in eradicating the stigma associated with the deaf. The Council, in conjunction with CHIPAWO and ZBC, will be officially launching the series on 15th June at a venue yet to be announced.

The television series is the work of CHIPAWO Media funded by MS Zimbabwe, the Danish development organisation. Though the first series was filmed by an all-hearing crew, it is planned that in future a deaf crew will be trained.

Though there are television programmes for the deaf in other countries, there are not many in Africa that have such programmes. According to the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) report 10 percent of the content on the national television broadcaster, ZTV, is expected to cater for the hearing impaired. As there was virtually nothing before, except for certain news programmes in Sign Language, Handspeak will go a long way towards filling the gap.

The series was repeated after its 13-week run. Unfortunately, Nyasha, the main motivator for the series, lived only long enough to see the first few episodes. She died of meningitis the morning after complaining of a splitting headache while assisting in the editing of one of the show's episodes at the CHIPAWO Media Centre.

So what about a sequel? With CHIPAWO's assistance Emerald Hill School for the Deaf put forward a proposal to the Culture Fund of Zimbabwe for funding to produce another13-episode television series in Sign Language. When the application was successful, consultations and planning took place with the deaf community and at Emerald Hill as to what the sequel to 'Handspeak' should be like. These produced 'Action Power', similar in concept to 'Handspeak' but with some significant innovations, in particular an arts segment in which deaf artists exhibit and speak about their work.

Unfortunately, Zimbabwe's galloping inflation wiped the money out before much could be done. An application for a top-up was granted but this money disappeared even faster. However so determined is CHIPAWO to get this programme done that shooting went on regardless and, when work came to an end, only 2 days shooting and the editing remained.

CHIPAWO has not been paid for any of its work so far. This does not really matter. The main thing is to get the programme done and onto the screen. With CHIPAWO continuing to offer its services free, it was calculated that the programme could be completed for only US$1 500 more. Obviously however CHIPAWO also needs to be paid.

(Anyone able to assist should please contact CHIPAWO on

Available on DVD

1. "Handspeak', television series (6 DVDs - total cost US$80. postage US$14)
2. 'Deaf Dialogues', compendium of drama segments from 'Handspeak' (2 DVDs - total cost US$30 - postage $14)
3. "Trailblazers', documentary on Emerald Hill School for the Deaf and its pioneering work in the arts and media (1 DVD - total cost US$15, postage $14)
4. 'Cry Thinking', stage drama by deaf children (1 DVD - total cost US$15, postage $14)
5. "Give Us A Chance', handicap and girl child advocacy arts festival, included in 'Three CHIPAWO Documentaries' (1 DVD - total cost US$15, postage $14)
6. "Vanamurambiwa" (The Forgotten Children), Christmas feature on orphans and the disabled (2 DVD - total cost US$30, postage $14)

Apologies for high cost of postage in Zimbabwe.

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