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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2005 Archives > January 2005 > In Ministry Together: The Gift of Language

Amos Muyambo displays a T-shirt designed for Sanganai Deaf Club members.
In Ministry Together: The Gift of Language

By Melissa Lauber

Sometimes all Amos Muyambo can do is pray.

In his native Zimbabwe he met a woman who never had heard of God. She also never had heard of community, reading, worship, games, travel or a thousand other things. Emma was a woman without language.

She took care of animals, knew food satisfied her hunger and sleep took away her fatigue. But she was deaf. With the exception of a few gestures for survival, she communicated with no one.

Emma was not alone. A young deaf boy who lived nearby also had no language. He watched his father die, be placed in a coffin and buried, without any real concept of what death was. Then he was sent to an orphanage.

Muyambo acknowledges that sometimes all one can do is pray, but at other times God demands action. For Muyambo that time has come.

His decision to minister to the deaf is intertwined with the mission of Christ Church of the Deaf in Baltimore and the United Methodist National Committee on Ministry with People Who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Late Deafened and Deaf-Blind.

Carol Stevens runs a Deaf Shalom Zone in Baltimore and took the first deaf Volunteers in Mission team to Zimbabwe in 2000. Earlier she and two others went there to explore and prepare for the group’s trip.

She discovered that one Roman Catholic Church did translate the Mass once a month for deaf people. But in a nation where “the church is so central,” the spiritual exclusion of the deaf had to be addressed. It needed to begin with language.

“They weren’t getting the ‘Word,’” Stevens said. “The Word with a capital ‘W’ may exist, but people can’t be aware of it without the little ‘w’: words.”

A series of hundreds of little miracles began. “God strategically arranges things,” Stevens said.

She was worshipping at Hilltop Church in Mutare, Zimbabwe, and learned, via e-mail, of a class of deaf people in nearby Sakubva that they could visit.

“We were down front, so we could do the translation,” she said. “Amos began to talk about his desire to be a sign-language teacher. I asked him if he knew the person who sent the e-mail. He did and became our God-given guide.”

The group met a woman giving birth. She was the first deaf patient at the mission hospital in Mtumba. They learned of another deaf woman in the area who was raising 17 grandchildren. “They said she was a little depressed. Can you imagine – a little depressed?” Stevens marveled.

Muyambo saw a new world.

A physical education teacher, he began paying more attention to the deaf people, especially the children.

Because most don’t have language, deaf people are marginalized at home. They are given menial tasks and not involved in the community’s spiritual life.

There are only four residential schools for the deaf in Zimbabwe, Muyambo said. Each is run by a different group of people using their own sign language. For the other deaf children, there are 220 teachers in Zimbabwe, but only 80 have had training in deaf education and sign language.

Isolated, the children invent their own sign language. With no common language, it’s almost impossible to form community, Muyambo said.

He began gathering the deaf children from different schools to compete in races and volleyball. The real benefit was that the children began to learn a common sign language to communicate with each other.

This year’s sports day drew 120 children and their teachers from the Manicaland province. Deaf students from the Nyadire United Methodist Mission drove more than four hours to attend. Sixty of the children stayed overnight for a sign language workshop and AIDS education, funded in part by Christ Church.

“It’s important that kids see somebody else that’s deaf besides them,” Muyambo said. “If not, they don’t know if there is anybody else deaf in the world. Some kids had never seen a deaf adult. They didn’t know if their own deafness would disappear when they grew up.”

Muyambo is not surprised by the success of the sports days. In 2000, when he and others called a meeting of adults who were concerned about deaf children, they expected 200 people to attend. They stopped counting after 400 walked through the door.

A member of the Sanganai Deaf Club practices her sewing.
The adults talked together in English, Shona and sign language and formed the first deaf community organization, “Sanganai.” The name means “to meet.”

In Harare, many of the deaf people beg. Sanganai members decided they didn’t want any deaf people begging in Mutare, so they began teaching skills. Today, 54 people belong to the Sanganai Deaf Club and work in income-generating projects like tie-dye, furniture making, mushroom growing, envelope making and clowning.

Clowning is the most unusual, explained Stevens. There were no clowns in Zimbabwe, but during a 2003 mission trip, Carolyn Sangrew, a professional clown from Pine Castle Church in Orlando, Fla., donated costumes to the club and taught them about Christian clowning.
Restaurants hire the clowns to entertain children.

But the members of the club did not stop with occupational training. They also asked Muyambo to teach them about the Bible.

As he worked with deaf people, Muyambo experienced a call to deaf ministry. Despite being the father of four children, he quit his job and began to study theology at Africa University, a United Methodist-related school in Mutare.

He began leading the Bible study and also took 17 members to church with him. They, in turn, began to evangelize to others. “Hearing the word is not enough,” Muyambo said. “The thing is, you have to speak it. When you meet Jesus, things happen.”

When Stevens’ group vis-ited Zimbabwe last summer, her sixth mission trip to Africa, she witnessed the baptisms of six deaf adults. She said, “The Spirit is transforming the lives of deaf people.”

While Stevens was in Zimbabwe, Muyambo was in Baltimore, learning about deaf culture and ministry in the United States.

He hopes that when he returns to Zimbabwe there will be a place for him to work as a pastor for the deaf.

In the United States, people frequently ask him why he is attracted to deaf ministry.

“I grew up with a love I learned from my mother,” he said. “She shared what very little we had with the poor, with people from the streets. We used to tease her, saying, ‘How can you invite them to come and share a meal with us when we have nothing?’”

But she believed that if you invited someone, God would provide for all of you. “God provided,” Muyambo said.

He now hopes that he can communicate to Zimbabwe’s deaf people and that God will speak a word through him. It is his prayer.

--Melissa Lauber is communications associate in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference.

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