Good Cause: Rwanda National Union of the Deaf

Jeanne Talk to Some Kids During International Deaf Awareness Week

I found out about the Rwanda National Union of the Deaf when someone contacted me about their fundraising event at Nakumatt this weekend. I was intrigued and Jeanne kindly agreed to answer some questions to let us know more about the RNUD and spread the word about their activities in Rwanda.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your involvement in the RNUD?

My name is Jeanne d’Arc Ntigulirwa, I have been Deaf since I was 4 years old. I have been living in Nyamirambo in Kigali since I was born. I went to inclusive schools from Primary school to University and despite struggling a lot with school, I did quite well and I am proud of what I have been able to accomplish while in school.

I started getting involved with RNUD in 2005 when, after 12 years, I met again some Deaf friends. We had been together at the Deaf School in Butare before 1994 (we had lost sight of each other due to the 1994 Genocide) and they introduced me to the Deaf Community here in Kigali and I felt the need of getting involved. First I was involved with Deaf Women and girls, I was the Secretary of a small association they had formed and then in 2007 my involvement was reduced, I had to focus much of my time on my studies at University. And then when I got my Bachelor’s Degree in 2010, I started looking for a job and after struggling a lot on the employment market, I was recruited by RNUD to serve as the Director of the organization,  and  I have been working there since then.

What is the RNUD?

RNUD stands for Rwanda National Union of the Deaf. It’s a National Non-Governmental Organization established and operated by Deaf People themselves. RNUD’s major aim is to advocate for equal opportunities and rights of Deaf people in all areas of socio-economic development. We organize and mobilize Deaf Communities in Rwanda in a cohesive manner so that together we can achieve the needed reforms to improve the quality of our lives.

RNUD is a member of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) and National Union of Disability Organizations of Rwanda (NUDOR) and works in partnership with Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO) – Rwanda.

When and how was it started?

RNUD was started in 1989 by Deaf men and women in view of uniting and raise awareness about the concerns and challenges Deaf people are faced with here in Rwanda and advocate for their Human Rights at all levels of the Rwandan society as provided by law. These Deaf men and women were all ex-students of the Deaf School in Huye (Centre pour les Jeunes Sourds et Muets) and they were concerned by the fact that, despite they had completed their basic education (available at the time), they were not getting jobs, had no voice within the society and their natural language – Sign Language – was not recognized by the Rwandan Society. They decided to stand together in solidarity to improve their conditions, the result was that RNUD was formed under the name of “Association Nationale des Sourds du Rwanda” and in 1993 it was approved by the Government.

Who does it aim to help?

RNUD aims to help all Deaf people of Rwanda. According to the Census of 2002, there are 25,000 Deaf people in Rwanda, but at RNUD we have reasons to believe that this number is just a small portion of the Deaf people that were involved in the Census at that time. We have Deaf Communities all over the country, in Muhanga, Musanze, Rubavu, Rwamagana, Ruhango, Nyanza, Gicumbi, Nyagatare these are just a few we have been able to visit, there are others that we are looking forward to visit; and we can include the Deaf children at school and other Deaf people that are lost somewhere in the Community or are hidden by their families, so the number is obviously higher than the 25,000 in the official papers. RNUD aims to serve all these people; we act as the voice through which they can reach to the authorities and the Rwandan Society in general.

What are the goals of the RNUD?

The goals of RNUD are:

  • To promote Rwandan Sign Language as a legally recognized national language in its own right and to spread its use throughout Rwanda via classes and outreach efforts.
  • Advocating and lobbying for reforms in laws, policies and programs that take in consideration the unique needs of Deaf Rwandans in areas of health, education, and socio-economic empowerment.
  • To combat marginalization and disenfranchisement by sensitizing the public on Deaf Culture and cooperating with relevant institutions and ministries mandated to assist Deaf people in all areas of development.
  • To establish,  represent and support regional and grassroots associations of the Deaf

How is the RNUD funded?

So far, VSO Rwanda has been funding most of our activities since 2006. We do also write Project proposals and send them to various donors; we organize fundraising events where we sell materials made by Deaf artists, members of RNUD. Also, generous individuals donate to RNUD. However, it is not enough to carry out all activities; we need more as we must reach out to all Deaf people in Rwanda.

What options do deaf people in Rwanda have to get educated and integrated into society?

Well, it’s the hardest and most critical question because Education is the key to improve the lives of Deaf people of Rwanda. We can’t talk about Deaf Education without referring to Rwandan Sign Language because for every individual to get educated, there must be a medium, I mean a language, which should be used to transfer knowledge to that person. So far, hearing children have access to Kinyarwanda, French and English; and as far as you can have access to these languages, you have no problem being educated through those languages. But Deaf people are not given a choice, we have to always adapt to what is available, and it is not helping at all.

I must insist on the fact that Deaf people use a visual language, and if it’s not available, recognized or accessible to them in the schools, Education for the Deaf won’t be possible, simply because they are deprived of a language! There are 16 specialized centers that cater for children with disabilities; those centers have also varying numbers of Deaf children. There are also 4 private schools that are dedicated exclusively to Deaf children, but these 20 centers and schools are not well equipped to provide quality Education to Deaf students. Deaf education involve a lot of factors: the use of Sign Language is a must, visual materials are also a must, teachers must be trained for this particular job, there must also be special sitting arrangements within the classrooms; parents and siblings involvement is also a must (at home, school and in the social settings) the use of Sign Language interpreters is also required, in brief a whole lot of factors!

To make it possible, the involvement of the Government is required, but unfortunately, there is only one government sponsored school for the Deaf in Rwanda, and it has a limited number of Deaf students. Plus, the Government is insisting on the inclusive system for all people with Disabilities, Deaf people included; and even all policies are in favor of the inclusive system! But it is not always the best way to educate Deaf people, especially for children and young people who need special attention in their early years at school. The inclusive system also involves a whole lot of factors, such as Sign Language interpreters, note takers, visual materials, such as the use of projectors, but these services are not yet available in Rwanda, and so the Education of the Deaf is a bit complicated.

It is also important to note that Deaf people have varying levels of hearing loss, and this should also be considered in their education: some are hard of hearing and can speak quite well, others are profoundly deaf and can’t speak at all, and others are also profoundly deaf, but can lip- read and speak a bit. Hard of hearing students can manage quite well in the inclusive education system, but not the profoundly Deaf! They need the assistance of Sign Language interpreters and other tools mentioned above. Most of the Deaf students we know are profoundly Deaf and can’t speak, so it means they are struggling at school.

Deaf Education is not about putting all Deaf children and young adults in schools! It’s about improving the quality of their Education by providing trained teachers, Sign Language interpreters, building public schools for the Deaf and making sure they have are the required equipments and tools! And also, it’s about enabling those who did not have a chance to formal education to get enrolled in vocational schools and providing them with the services required.

As for the social integration, it’s a matter of recognizing Sign Language (the natural language of Deaf people) as a national language like any other official language, also recognizing the Deaf Culture as part of the overall Rwandan Culture. One can’t integrate a certain society if he/she can’t be understood or if he/she has no access to opportunities available within that Society! So far, almost all services are not accessible: Health services, employment opportunities, cultural opportunities, socio- economic opportunities…. So, if it’s the case, what about the social integration? There is obviously a lot to do in the coming years to make the social integration successful!

How can people get involved with the RNUD?

I think by now people are aware about the situation of Deaf people in Rwanda from the information given above. To improve the situation of Deaf people of Rwanda, everybody’s involvement is needed: family members, neighbors, friends, local community, local authorities,,,, everybody! Being involved with RNUD does not mean coming at our office and helping, you can actually do it from where you are! It’s about supporting every Deaf person in your surroundings and they are all over the country! There are children at Deaf schools or special centers, Deaf students in inclusive schools, in your families, neighborhoods, you even happen to meet them on the road, in the market, at the hospital… everywhere! They need your help, and here we are not talking about pitying those people who can’t hear, but we are talking about supporting those citizens who have a different culture, different language and a particular way of hearing (through the eyes) because circumstances decided so, and who need your help. It’s not about constantly helping them, it’s about encouraging them to stand on their two feet, and it’s about giving them an opportunity to access the services and opportunities every person enjoys as a Rwandan citizen, it’s about involving them in the activities of your organization, your community and your Church, and enabling them to feel responsible and to contribute to the Development of the country as proud citizens of this country!

For those wishing to be directly involved with RNUD, there is always an opportunity to do that: we always need volunteers whose various skills are invaluable, we also need donations to carry out our work, and we need people to walk with us in the struggle to improve the lives of Deaf people!

So, we are inviting all people to come and support us in our events, such as the fundraising we are organizing at Nakumatt (we look forward to organize such more fundraisings in the future) people can buy our beautiful materials (these are not just any materials; they are materials that promote Sign Language, our mother tongue!), people can also make donations and subscribe to the list of future Sign Language learners.

What does the future hold for the RNUD? What are your future goals?

Our main goal is to make RNUD a strong and recognized organization to which every Deaf person in Rwanda will be proud to belong to. And to be able to do that, we believe that every Rwandan’s contribution is needed; we can’t just fight the cause by ourselves! We are trying to give a language to people, whom don’t have any, to help them access the various services and opportunities available within the Rwandan Society, thus integrate them fully within the Rwandan Society. Obviously, we cannot do that if the Society is not ready to help in order to ease the integration.

The policies, plans and programs are in place to make it possible, but the implementation is taking too long. So, RNUD plans to go on with its already established goals and push the implementation of already existing policies and laws, as mentioned above, we also plan to involve the local community, families of Deaf people and our supporters; the main goal will be to ensure that all Deaf Rwandans can achieve their Human Rights at all levels of the Rwandan society.

Address: P.O. Box 5810, Kigali (Opposite Kicukiro Zinia Market)
Phone: 0255 106 690

About Kirsty

A Canadian who left in 2001 to wander around the world in search of sun, beautiful views and goat brochettes. Found Kigali in July 2010 and it seems like the perfect fit. I expect to be here until I get kicked out for defiantly walking on the grass while wearing flip flops.