It’s raining in Bath. The water hits the zinc sheets of the school’s roof violently, causing a thunderous noise. Nobody seems to care. In fact, no one seems to even notice. The teacher continues to explain the equations, and the students fix their eyes on the movement of the hands, on the drawings that form the fingers, so as not to lose the thread. Only when the water begins to seep and the first drops fall on the math notebooks does the class notice the flood. Director Pilar Bilogo picks up the phone and calls someone: there is another problem in the center.
“I think the best thing to do would be to leave and start selling used clothes in the market.” It is this phrase that Bilyo constantly repeats. She is exhausted rowing alone, discouraged, but despite the fact that every day is getting more uphill, and that she feels alone in the face of the challenge before her, she knows that it is impossible to give up. The thought of leaving La Fe, the school for the deaf he founded in 2013, vanishes as soon as he opens his eyes in the morning. In front of her are six children with hearing impairments and another mute with a mental disorder, whom she accepts, feeds, clothes and educates without any support. The college has over a hundred students. No, Pilar Bilogo cannot leave.
His days begin in Nkombong Bata, Equatorial Guinea’s most populous city, on a wooden ground floor at the end of a dirt road. Moisture trapped in dark rooms clings to piles of faded clothes. A sandy corridor leads to a windowless bedroom, where mattresses are covered with mosquito nets. In the middle of the hallway is a kitchen full of dishes, rusty camping gas and an empty refrigerator.
Lucia is at La Fey waiting for the teacher.DIEGO MANJIBAR RAINES
Half past seven in the morning; some students choose to go to a school for the hearing, while others go to La Fee. There are three educational centers for the deaf in Equatorial Guinea. There are two houses in Bath: La Fe and Manos Felices, which until 2013 were the only ones in the entire continental region. The third, owned by the Red Cross, is located in Malabo.
Equatorial Guinea has not signed or ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. On the other hand, the current Law on General Education, approved in 2007, contains a number of articles providing for the provision of educational opportunities to a group of the population of the country suffering from disabilities, but at present all educational centers for the deaf in the country have been created on a private initiative, and not by the administration. Equatorial Guinea.
Data that saves lives
Hearing loss affects poorer countries more. According to WHO, almost 80% of people with hearing impairments live in low- and middle-income countries. Access to ear and hearing care services in these countries is also more limited: “For every million inhabitants, there are 78% of low-income countries have less than one ear, nose and throat specialist, 93% have less than one audiologist, and only 50% have at least one teacher for the deaf.”
The causes of hearing loss are directly related to the implementation of preventive measures and therefore to the investments and strategies that the country in question is taking. In the case of Equatorial Guinea, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) reads: “Recent poverty statistics are not available, although the World Bank claims the poverty rate was 76.8% in 2006. In 2015, only one out of every four newborns was immunized against polio and measles, and one in three was immunized against tuberculosis. It is estimated that half of the population does not have drinking water and six out of ten children attend school.” According to the WHO, rubella, meningitis, measles or mumps can cause hearing loss, and most of these can be prevented by vaccination.
A year before the founding of La Fe Bilogo left Africa for the first time. He was 26 years old and had been working with Manos Felices for several years when he was offered to continue his studies abroad. He did not think about it and went to Nicaragua, a special country for the Community of the Deaf: after the victory of the Sandinistas in 1980, literacy began to spread. Its fruits reached all corners of the country. At the Villa Libertad school in Managua, the youngest students independently created what is now known as Nicaraguan Sign Language or LSF, a milestone studied by linguists around the world because it was created by children, not adults.
Upon Bilyo’s return, he founded La Fe and made a number of distinctions: it lowers tuition fees, opens doors to educate students with other special educational needs (SEN), and most importantly, La Fe becomes the first central school in the country to accept deaf students over the age of seven without prior teaching sign language. This woman understands the importance of educating young people as soon as possible, but she also understands that closing the doors to those over the age of seven will mean depriving them of any educational opportunity. Your task is to prevent this.
There are 8.9 million deaf children in sub-Saharan Africa.
However, many students cannot afford to pay the La Fe registration fee, jeopardizing the continuity of the project. Bilyo refuses to give up: “There is a reason why I continue to accept students in classes and children at home: the rejection of the family and the isolation of minors with deafness in my country.” In Equatorial Guinea, especially in the hinterland, it is still widely believed that the mothers of those who suffer from this disease were bewitched during pregnancy and therefore newborns are cursed. Teenagers (and mothers) grow up with this, bear this burden all their lives, but Bilyo is working on a solution to this problem. What is your strategy? Convey to parents: “Every day they show me that they are capable of anything, to be another one in society. Family acceptance, language access, group integration, and elimination of prejudice are of paramount importance.”
For this reason, WHO has produced the 2021 World Hearing Report to provide advice to governments on how to include ear care in their national health plans. The report explains: “A lack of accurate information and stigmatizing views about ear disease and hearing loss often limit people’s access to treatment for these conditions.” In 2021, 1.5 billion people had some degree of hearing loss and 430 million needed rehabilitation services. The future data is alarming: WHO predicts that by 2050 there will be 2.5 billion people with some degree of deafness, and 700 in need of rehabilitation. According to the NGO Deaf Child Worldwide, there are 8.9 million deaf children in sub-Saharan Africa.
build a dream
Bilogo wants all deaf children in his country to have access to education. In 2012, this dream was a utopia; in 2021, most of that responsibility rests on his shoulders. Dreams of building a boarding school. The plot she needs has already been donated by the mother of one of her students, but for now it remains a rectangle of virgin forest the size of a football field. “My idea is that 50 students live there permanently, while the rest go to classes and go home every day. To do this, we need bedrooms, a kitchen, classrooms, a dining room, theater halls, a church, and a few extra classrooms to teach sewing, computers, or other useful disciplines,” she explains.
Lucia and another student communicate from class to classDIEGO MANJIBAR RAINES
In Bath, deaf youth have more opportunities to access education than deaf youth in the hinterland, who suffer far more than those in cities from the consequences of not having a school to attend. The results of a failure to communicate can be catastrophic, affecting both educational attainment and mental health, one of the neglected areas of the collective. Stefania Fadda, President of the European Society for Mental Health and Deafness (ESMHD), clarifies this in an email interview: “In the most disadvantaged and impoverished areas of Africa, children with deafness are at risk of not developing adequate speech. and lacking access to education, and therefore becoming socially disintegrated adults, lonely and isolated, unemployed, at risk of developing depression and, in more severe cases, psychiatric disorders.”
The World Deaf Federation (WDF) says it’s important to ensure that children with the condition are exposed to sign language as soon as possible, and Fadda acknowledges the implications: “Giving them an effective and early form of communication, either spoken language or sign language, or both, and other (bilingualism), significantly reduces stress, discomfort and difficulties that can cause suffering, personality change or mental disorders.” Learning to communicate is the first step to avoid these consequences: for this reason, Pilar Bilogo’s dream is the only sure bet for now to save the future of many deaf people, both in her city and in hinterland where neglect and stigmatization more pronounced.
The results of a failure to communicate can be catastrophic, affecting both educational and mental health.
With small steps, the inexhaustible work of this woman penetrates the society of Equatorial Guinea. At 35, she can be seen working as an interpreter at the Cultural Center of Spain in Bath (CCEB), where she leads her students on informational talks about HIV prevention, or on the television program Con M de mujer, talking about the need to integrate people with deafness and eliminate prejudice. Nadia Valentin, director of CCEB, says that Bilogo has become a great ally of the cultural center: “Because it is one of the few professionals in the country who can translate into sign language, and also because it makes it easier for students to have equal access to the conditions of the activities that we programming in CCEB.
There are no teachers, teaching does not work
The words of Santiago Bivini Mange, Secretary General of the National Commission of Equatorial Guinea for UNESCO, did not have the weight they deserved: “Although there is a legal framework for the special education and care of SOP, there is no evidence that there are mechanisms for the establishment and operation of its implementation.” His message was recorded in the document “Special Educational Needs in Equatorial Guinea” produced in 2011 by the Education Development Program of Equatorial Guinea (PRODEGE). The legal scenario referred to by the secretary is the aforementioned Law on General Education.
Fifteen years after this law went into effect, there is still no pedagogical guide for developing special education curricula, and most schools rely on guides for regular education. In 2015, UNICEF produced an Analysis of the Special Education Situation in Equatorial Guinea, a paper which indicated that only 2% of teachers for the population with SEN had a technical level of special education. The same organization, based on a survey in 76 centers, concluded that 90% of teachers experience difficulties in serving students with SOP. And the World Federation of the Deaf itself warns: “Children face educational barriers if teachers and peers are not fluent in sign language, which can lead to illiteracy.”
Remigio Agustín Esono, an electrical student at the National University of Equatorial Guinea (UNGE), confirms this: “I have been a volunteer teacher for three years now and would like to continue my education and collaboration with this project.” Although the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities obliges States Parties to ensure that teachers are proficient in this language, this does not apply to absent Equatorial Guinea.
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