As executive director of the Nzeve Deaf Centre, Selina Mlambo regularly sees small but significant signs of transformation in the people the centre works with. Christ is the centre of the work Nzeve does, says Selina. Jenny Beechey, from Tearfund’s International Program Team, spoke with Selina about Nzeve’s work. Story by Emma Halgren.
Nzeve, an NGO in Zimbabwe’s eastern Manicaland province, bordering Mozambique, provides holistic services for deaf and hearing-impaired children, youth and their families, and promotes their right to participate fully in society. Guided by Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12, Nzeve's staff and volunteers seek to build up the whole body of Christ in all they do, recognising the gifts in each person. People with disabilities are equally a part of that body, indeed they are fundamental to it, so building the whole body of Christ means including people with disabilities, and honouring and valuing the contribution they make.
Among other things, Nzeve provides young deaf children and their families with the opportunity to learn sign language and prepare for formal education.
“[I see] God everywhere,” says Selina. “I don’t think you can do this work without Him. When I got into this line of work, I remember my father telling me, this is something you’re constantly going to have to be in prayer for. Because it takes a lot to see the miracles, to see the actual good, because it doesn’t come in big jumps or leaps. It’s just the very little things.
“I see it particularly in the families,” she says. “Because they come here, and they have got one way of thinking, and they have been influenced by culture and by the environment around them, and then they’re suddenly in this environment."
"I have seen the transformation. I love listening to the parents’ stories, because they talk about their transformation from one point to another," Selina says.
She tells a story of a woman who brought her child, who was experiencing developmental delays, to one of Nzeve’s groups for under-fives.
“This is her story really, because she always says that when she and her husband first came, at the first group meeting we had, we were talking about playing with children. And we said, ‘You’ve got to play with your child and encourage their speech and development through play.’ And she says she walked out of the meeting with her husband, laughing, saying ‘this is absolutely ridiculous! We came all this way to be told to play with our children!’ And they just laughed.
“But the funny thing is, she came back. She didn’t stop coming. She came back. And now she is the greatest advocate for play. And she says ‘through play, my child learned to talk. Through play my child developed’. And you know, she saw the milestones coming through.”
That woman is now one of Nzeve’s parent mentors. These mentors play a vital role in Nzeve’s work, working with staff to support new families of deaf children, and helping parents who are struggling to communicate with their child. Parent mentors also assist in the work of outreach to the community to identify children who are deaf and in need of support, and to encourage their parents to seek help despite the stigma that surrounds this and other disabilities.
“We have to work with the parents to convince them to bring their child,” Selina says. “Because of so much discrimination, a lot of parents don’t want to, they don’t see the point.
“Disability across the board is considered a curse, it still is. That’s an ongoing battle, particularly in rural communities, but also in urban. In a family where you’re the only child with a disability, and other children are prioritised in terms of education, in terms of resources in the family, it’s harder to convince families to come here to the centre to get help. At the moment, we don’t have centres in other areas. So families are reluctant to make the journey unless things like bus fares are covered.”
Once they come to Nzeve, children receive a free hearing test. If their hearing loss or impairment is confirmed, they can attend early childhood development classes there so that Nzeve can support them in the years leading up to starting school.
“Once they join the pre-school, we work with the parents as well,” says Selina. “So they are welcome in the classroom, they are encouraged to be there to learn alongside their child.
“And then when they graduate, we don’t abandon them – they are still part of the parenting program. They come to the regular Wednesday meetings that are open to any parent, regardless of the age of their child, who has a deaf child. And we equip them with business skills, income generating ideas and projects to do so that they have the funds to pay for school fees to look after their child and just continue in that sign language environment.”
Nzeve also runs a vocational training centre for deaf youth where, regardless of whether they have graduated from high school, they are able to obtain a certificate in one of a number of courses including building, carpentry, sewing and gardening.
In her own learning of sign language, Selina says that the encouragement she’s received from people in the deaf community has been one of the greatest motivators.
“I think the deaf community is so social,” she says. “The minute you show an interest, they’re encouraging you to learn … it’s such a socially excluded community, and yet they have this love and desire to learn.”
From the people she works with she has learned much about what it means to hold, share and hand over power.
“There’s the thing of just teaching deaf leadership, encouraging the communities we work with to recognise their own strengths,” she said. “And then they have to identify the spaces where they can fit, where they can make an impression or an impact. So there’s that first part where you’re working with them to understand their role, and then there’s them going with it, and taking it to the next level. And once you’ve taught leadership … sometimes then you have to remind people that you are also in a position of power and you should use it wisely as well.
“With the deaf community and their parents, it’s about recognising their potential, and what they can teach me,” she says. “I think that’s where the strength has been, not to always assume I’m the one coming with all the knowledge, but to come into the centre.
“When you come to Nzeve, and it’s a sign language environment, you become the one who’s disabled because you can’t communicate. And so if you think about yourself in that context, it should help you understand how it is for a deaf person in the rest of the community.
“You can’t come in as ‘I know it all’. It doesn’t work in disability,” says Selina.
She says it can be incredibly frustrating for people who know they have something to offer society, but are sometimes discredited because of some aspect of who they are.
“In this case it would be deafness; for me it’s been being a black woman who’s educated and [people think] that’s not your position in the society, you should be lower – whatever it is, it’s knowing that frustration and knowing that somebody else is feeling like that, and you have the power to take advantage or you have the power to empower the next person, and give them a platform instead of taking it for yourself. That’s your lesson.”