Silent childbirth: The tale of Zimbabwe’s deaf mothers to be

Mary Mundeya/Regina Pasipanodya

When Tendai Mhondoro (41) went into labour for the first time in 2013, she was worried about her baby’s welfare, as she could not communicate well with the midwife who was attending her.

Mhondoro is deaf.

“I prayed for a miracle, as I was feeling alone and helpless. I thought that I was going to lose my baby and to make matters worse the nurse was clueless about sign language,” said Mhondoro describing her labour experience as the worst experience of her life.

For three days, she endured painful contractions but her real struggle was a result of poor communication with the midwives at Parirenyatwa Hospital which is Zimbabwe’s biggest referral hospital.

“I could not understand their instructions and I did not know how to ask for help. I felt isolated, scared, and frustrated,” she said.

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Tendai’s story is typical of how the language barrier is denying deaf women in Zimbabwe from properly accessing maternal health care, which often leads to infant and maternal mortality.  

‘The struggle of deaf mothers-to-be’

In Zimbabwe, a country where even basic healthcare services are strained by hopelessly inadequate budgets, accessing maternal health services by deaf women is cumbersome.

According to Amnesty International, “Zimbabwe has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world and deaf mothers-to-be have to gamble their life with under-funded and under-resourced local government hospitals being assisted with nurses who are not able to communicate effectively with them.

A 2021 baseline study by the Zimbabwe Deaf Trust says the deaf community has been “invisible”. It says focus has been given to other forms of disability that are more visible neglecting the needs of the people who are deaf.

A Catholic Institute for International Relations working under the banner, ‘Progressio’ recently referred to people who are deaf as ‘a forgot tribe’ emphasising that Sign Language services are rarely available in health facilities in Zimbabwe as compared to facilities for other forms of disabilities.

Ironically, inclusiveness has been the major challenge for a country that has disability-specific legislation. Sign Language was made one of Zimbabwe’s 16 official languages in 2013 with the adoption of the current constitution.

Deaf women have been hard-hit by the lack of implementation as they are repeatedly excluded from health education, counselling, and decision-making due to the lack of Sign Language interpreters and trained staff in the health sector. This has often resulted in them being neglected.

In an interview with ‘She Corresponds Africa’, Health and Child Care deputy minister  John Mangwiro concurred that the situation was bad.

“Imagine being surrounded by people who cannot understand you,” he quipped.

“As the government, it has become our top priority to make sure that nurses in local hospitals are trained to be able to communicate with everyone including the deaf.

‘The Ministry has been rolling a programme of training nurses in Sign Language for quite some time now in central hospitals starting with Parirenyatwa.’’

The initiative is however yet to reach all parts of the country.

Efforts to get statistics of the nurses that have received the training and those that are yet to be trained from the Department of Rehabilitation in the Ministry of Health and Child Care were futile this week. Staff from the department said their hands were tied because the director was out of the office.

However, recently, a local student has given hope to deaf mothers-to-be through the invention of a sign language interpreter.

Deaf Mothers-to-be find new hope in an innovative sign language interpreter

Joannete Ngwenya (17), a student at Dominican Convent in Bulawayo has designed a ground-breaking sign language interpreter that could be used as an alternative to communicate with able-hearing people who have no interest in Sign Language.

Joannete Ngwenya after receiving a robotics special award in Texas

Ngwenya said she was inspired by the fact that most able-hearing people have no interest in sign language, therefore with her computer program sign language can be translated into English using coding.

“I hope that my invention will help deaf people communicate better with others and access more opportunities,” Joanette told the Chronicle.

Her project introduces a new and effective method of allowing communication between deaf and hearing communities that is permanent, efficient, and mostly accurate.

Joanette scooped a Special Award in Robotics and Intelligent Machines at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Texas in May 2023.

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A Chitungwiza woman Maudy Moyo (33), who is also deaf, applauded Ngwenya‘s innovative idea that seeks to address critical challenges faced by deaf people in society.

Speaking to She Corresponds Africa, Moyo revealed she also went through a difficult time at Chitungwiza Hospital in 2014, when she gave birth to her first child.

“I recalled that during visits to a local clinic in Chitungwiza, whenever the nurses learned that I was deaf, they would pass my file from one nurse to another. Some nurses would disappear from the room and not return, hoping that I would get assisted by the next person who entered the room,” said Maudy.

“We could not find an interpreter and communicating through writing was a nightmare.

Watch: Deaf mothers narrating their birth experiences

 “In our deaf culture, our English is different from those that are used by people who can talk. Therefore, any information that is being communicated in a format that a person struggles to understand can make a person even more confused, especially on health matters. I believe this innovation could help us a long way as since it can be used on both ends.”

Deaf Zimbabwe Trust Executive Director Barbra Nyangairi said information technology has always been helpful to the deaf community by giving them access to information, and services among other things.

“It is true that in Zimbabwe, we have seen some improvement in the last 10 years, with an increase in deaf awareness and programmes but when it comes to services provided by government institutions a lot needs to be done,” she said.

“We are still lagging behind considering that the Sign Language is still limited in terms of signs, vocabulary and a lot needs to be done to describe and documenting so that sign language is operationalised.

“If put to practice, I believe that Ngwenya’s innovation has a potential to address the barriers of communication that have been experienced between people who can talk and the deaf in our community increase. ”Deaf Zimbabwe Trust is a voluntary organisation that promotes the rights and interest of the Deaf and Hard of Hear.

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