Education26th November 2015

Born Deaf and fighting for a chance in Cameroon?

Thelma thrives in a Deaf School but fees leave her education in doubt

by Marc Serna

Thelma is a 6 years old girl living in Tole, a village in the South-West Region of Cameroon. Like many other children there, she is the daughter of a single mother and an absent father, and from a very tender age she knows what hunger and poverty means. Unlike the children around her, she happens to be Deaf and that could condemn her to a life of isolation and dependency.

The Cameroonian Government does not support Deaf children in any way, there is no Government school for the Deaf, and there is no subsidy to have access to the scarce private institutions. It is still common to hear expressions like the “deaf and dumb” in Cameroon, as most citizens do not have knowledge on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing realities and believe they are born stupid. So many Deaf children actually grow up to be underdeveloped adults after not attending formal education and not learning sign language or how to read and write.

I discovered her one afternoon, as I was interviewing her mother who benefits from the Keep a Girl Alive Program (Our Non-Government Organisation (NGO), Reach Out Cameroon programme, which uses cash transfers and training to empower young, vulnerable women). After our one-hour interview on her progress and her business, I just asked casually if there was anything else she would like to tell me. “See, my child is Deaf and she is not going to school, I don’t know what to do”. After that, I always add that question at the end of any interview.

Without Government support, NGO’s and private institutions have to take up the task of caring for the Deaf alone. In Buea, the Capital of the South-West Region of Cameroon, the Buea School for the Deaf is a deaf-led boarding school that does an excellent job. But Government also fails to support them with proper financial assistance and they see themselves pushed to plead for international help and raise the school fees to more than 5 times the fee any other school or high school has to ask for (more than 10 times what the cheaper institutions charge).  

Given this Government’s vacuum, there is also absolute lack of coordination between teaching institutions, as they are mostly small charitable institutions with very limited resources and are left to take care for whole regions with populations over a million. Schools in the North-West are teaching American Sign Language, in the South-West Cameroonian Sign Language is taught. These are the two Anglophone regions. In the West Region, Francophone, French Sign Language is taught. (These are examples I can talk about, there might be more in different regions).

This condemns successful students to a very small personal network of former students of the same institutions so that even among other educated Deaf you are not always able to communicate. This is not to mention the majority of rural populations in Cameroon which won’t even have physical access to these institutions. There, Deaf children limit themselves to the rudimentary communication methods they use with their parents and they live all their life under that constraint, growing to be underdeveloped adults in most cases.

We were worried when we learned about Thelma, she was at risk of going towards that path. Thelma’s mother, Stephanie, is one of those amazing women who are transforming their lives slowly and steadily. But she is still far from being able to pay for the school fees in Buea School of the Deaf. She might be in a few years, but she is clearly not there yet. She was not receiving either any orientation or support on how to adequately address her child’s needs.

Reach Out Cameroon is an NGO that cares about all vulnerable groups and about enforcing human rights, we had a mandate to do something about her. But we did not have any funding addressing such issues, and we barely have any running budget to cover emergencies. Luckily, we are partners of and we could start a crowdfunding campaign to obtain the necessary money for one year of schooling.

We were incredibly lucky, a few benefactors quickly came to her assistance and every one (her mother, her school and ourselves) could finally be certain that she could make it for at least one year. Her evolution was impressive, she is still picking up on so many things, but there is no doubt she is an amazing child. She managed to teach her mother sign language during the holiday period and in this video you can see how she communicates with her. Thelma tries to write the ABC, and when she hesitates, she looks at her mother, who will make the sign for the necessary letter. No one but Thelma, 6 years old, taught Stephanie those and many other basic signs.

So now we are facing another year and funding has not yet come to her assistance. The School for the Deaf has accepted her, as they are a trusted partner of ours, but this is just temporary, if funding does not come through her situation will have to be revised.

This is the kind of absolute abandon to chance you are subject to when you are Deaf and poor in Cameroon. If funding comes through she will be allowed to remain in school, her progress will continue and she will be on track to realising all her potential, being able to fully communicate with her mother and the world around her. She will have an education and a real opportunity to make it in life. If there is no funding, then she will go back to her mother and just wait for years till maybe in the future she is able to raise the sum required for her to resume her education.

There are many children in Cameroon facing this situation, we have identified the problems and we want to start addressing the issue of lack of coordination between institutions, lack of Government implication and overall lack of access to Deaf education among the rural and the extreme poor Cameroonians. Hopefully, our efforts will be fruitful, but right now we are certain that you can help this one child. If you want to support Thelma’s education follow this link:

Marc Serna works in Reach Out Cameroon, a Cameroonian NGO based in Buea that works for the rights and development of the most vulnerable groups all over the South-West Region of Cameroon. E-mail:

Article by Marc Serna

posted in Community / Education

26th November 2015