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Felicia Foinmbam: I taught my deaf children to speak


When Felicia Foinmbam, a management assistant in a Pharmaceutical company, gave birth to her first child, everything appeared normal until the baby turned four.

“He could not utter a single thing. I was worried and wanted to have him checked but my relatives would not allow me. They accused me of being anxious and told me that being a first born and a boy, it would take him longer to speak.” So Felicia delayed assessing Gerald.

A year later, she gave birth to her second child and Gerald could still not speak, “I was living in Younde, Cameroon, so I secretly left the house with Gerald and my infant child travelled 400 kilometres to Duala — the commercial capital — to have the child assessed and my worst fears were confirmed, that he was profoundly deaf and nothing could be done.”

Hardly had Felicia come to grip with the news that she noticed Sammy, the second born, was also not speaking. “The family, again, would not allow me to do an assessment on him. They claimed Sammy was copying his brother who was not talking. So Sammy went to live with my mother and I stayed with Gerald.”

Months later, however, Sammy was still mum. Felicia, after coming to terms with Gerald’s disability started looking for ways to help him. “I began to look for intervention strategies that would enable Gerald be integrated into the society.

I went all over Cameroon but there was nothing. Then I went to the British Council and got addresses of schools in the United Kingdom and asked if they knew of any schools in Africa. They suggested Kenya.”

Felicia had lived in Kenya before as a youth, attending Kianda Secretarial College and later Kenya Institute of Management to do Business and NGO Management. So Kenya in 1999, Felicia convinced her family to let her leave for Kenya with Gerald and Sammy.

Second chance

“At the back of my mind, I knew that as soon as I landed in Kenya I would get Sammy assessed because there would be no opposition. I went to Nairobi Hospital’s hearing centre and it was confirmed that he was also deaf. I was five months pregnant so I started wondering if that child too would be deaf. I actually wished we would lose the pregnancy because I feared having a third child who might have the same problem.”

Felicia was devastated, “I cried a lot. In fact, I cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, Jeremiah 29:11 came to my mind. ‘For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’

I realised it was God’s divine plan that the children be born deaf. My Christian faith enabled me to accept it. By the time my daughter was being assessed, I was more prepared to face the truth - that she was also deaf.”

With three deaf children, Felicia faced harsh criticism. “Close relatives would tell me I was bewitched, even Christians said I was under an ancestral curse. Some people went as far as claiming that my husband’s consumption of alcohol caused the deafness.”

In what can only be termed as heartless, these people continued heaping such accusations so Felicia sought to protect herself and the children. “I learnt to stay away from negative people. However if such a person comes close then I do not discuss my children. If they insist on talking about it, I just end the discussion. I do this to keep my mind at peace.”

After coming to terms with having three deaf children, Felicia started her investigations, “I plunged myself into reading a lot specifically how a hearing impaired person can lead a close to normal life.

I stumbled across a programme for parents with deaf children, the John Tracy programme, and started a correspondence course.” She focused on the oral teaching method. This strategy focuses on helping the deaf person speak; with the help of a hearing aid which can amplify up to 80 decibels the deaf person can hear.

As a result, if he or she can hear then they will be able to speak. “I opted for the oral training because it helps the person be integrated independently into society. They can communicate with any person.” The oral training is done at the same time with speech therapy where the person goes to a speech therapist and is taught to pronounce words.

 “I received lectures which I read and practised on my children. I believe that the level of integration of a special child (in society) can synonymously be measured with the level of commitment of the parent.”

With this philosophy in mind, Felicia made a bold move. Instead of sending Gerald and his siblings to school, she decided to home school them using the oral method.

The long wait

“The financial needs of oral training are very high, hearing aids can cost as high as Sh500,000 and the batteries, to power the aid, are Sh700 and last two weeks. So every two weeks, whether we have eaten or not, we need the money for batteries.

Then earlier on, there was speech training which is Sh2,500. So, we depend on my husband who is the main source of income in the family and I also try to chip in. I can do anything even sweep someone’s floor to raise that extra coin that can help.”

Felicia spent the next couple of years trying to teach her children to speak, although progress was slow she kept at it. “I bombarded them with sounds then accompanied it with gestures. I kept teaching Gerald to say ‘mum’ over and over again but despite my efforts, he still did not say anything. Then one day as I was bringing food to the table, he said it. I was so excited. It gave me the motivation to continue teaching them.”

After many years of home schooling, Felicia realised the children needed to interact with their age mates.

“I discovered they needed to connect with other people because I was the only person in their lives. I felt they needed to be exposed to other diverse characters.” She started looking for oral training schools but unfortunately she did not find any. So in a typical Felicia move, she decided to start a school. “The only oral training school in Nairobi was shut down, so I brought together a group of parents and we started Eden School.”

Stigma is real

Although some students enrolled, she needed more to keep the school running, but getting parents to bring their children was difficult.

“It was challenging getting a good number of parents who could afford to enroll because many preferred to hide their children. I remember one day speaking in church about raising deaf children and was surprised by the number of people who came later and whispered that they also had a deaf child. The problem of stigma is very real, and some people do not have the strength to come out.”

Despite the challenges, Felicia ploughed on until more students joined and eventually her children finished and are now in college.

“One thing parents must do is to observe their children and pick out their strengths. I had no choice, especially with three deaf children, but to look keenly in order to discover and enhance my children’s talents; because there is no room to try several things. I discovered at age nine, Gerald loved photography because every time I bought a phone the memory would be full of pictures he had taken.”

A place in the world

So, Felicia bought him a camera and got a teacher to show him how to capture and edit the pictures.

“He is so passionate about it that he stays up all night editing pictures. Sammy is passionate about football. As a baby, he was very energetic so we enrolled him in a football club to expend some of the energy. Now, he plays for Ligi Ndogo and does graphics design.

My daughter, Victory, is a natural born designer. Every weekend and holiday, she would sit with a lady at Maasai market who teaches her to make jewelry. Now she makes very nice jewelry and combines it with graphics design.”

Felicia epitomises the very idea of beating the odds — her children will make it because she was not willing to go down the path society was laying for her.

She changed countries, started a school and did whatever she had to do to ensure her children thrived.

“I firmly believe that if God allowed these children in the world it means there is a way they are meant to survive, so I have given them that opportunity. Every child has their place in the world and as parents, it’s up to us to help them find it.”

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