Safe Love for Deaf Ears

Zambia 2013

By Catherine de Lange

July 16, 2013

Also published at Global Health in Zambia

We hear a lot about public health campaigns falling on deaf ears or being lost in translation, but what happens when awareness campains literally fail to reach their target audience because they cannot hear, and there are too few sign-language interpreters to translate?

Yesterday, I visited a school which is mostly attended by deaf children and young adults in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. There, I went to a meeting of a youth club called Safe Love, which is set up to give a space to young people to talk about the issues surrounding sexual health and in particular the risk of HIV. The group was run by a facilitator who used sign language and who invited the young people there to tell their own personal stories about how they got involved in the group and how it changed their behaviours. The first to speak up was a man in his mid-twenties, called Amos.

Amos came up to the front to speak candidly about his life, and his story was interpreted by the group facilitator. He told us how he was born hearing, but was left deaf as a child after a bout of meningitis. He recounted how his oldest sister abused him, and he went on to lead a very promiscuous lifestyle. The Safe Love Club has only been running for a few months but Amos says it’s changed his understanding of his decisions, and so too his behaviour.

You can listen to his story on Cowbird here.

Amos’s story of attitude change seems typical of the other young people gathered in that room. They looked young, but actually some of them were in their late twenties, a couple in their early thirties, the youngest being nineteen. Zambia is a middle-income country, Lusaka is modern, and campaigns to tackle the HIV epidemic have been running for decades now. This group would have been born in the years where the world’s eyes were opened to HIV and AIDS, when people were beginning to die of this mysterious cause. The fact that this is the first time a lot of these young people have had a chance to come to grips with the facts around HIV and their own sexual health is testimony to how much they have been left out of the dialogue.

After the session, I spoke to Ben Miti, the executive director of Latkings, which is a local citizen group which helps to run this youth club in coordination with an organization called CSH, which is funded by USAID and implemented by Chemonics. Latkings mainly runs mobile HIV testing facilities, and when they came to the school to offer HIV tests, they were alarmed to discover how many of them were HIV positive – 48 out of the 127 tested (38%).

Miti explained that until they they didn’t realise there was such a high prevalence of HIV amongst the young, deaf community. “We didn’t know [before], but when we saw the results we knew we needed to do something,” he says, which is why they organised for a Save Love Club, which are run in locations around the country, at the school. He says that the club was so popular, they had to create a second session, and even then it was oversubscribed.

Young men crowd at the door of the Save Love Youth Club in Lusaka

Miti says part of the problem here is that young deaf people simply aren’t reached by the majority of awareness campaigns – whether they go out on the radio or consist of a conversational, counselling style approach. From speaking to the young people at the club, it was also clear that there is a serious lack of interpreters who can help them make sense not only of the risks, but also of their medical situation – for example to translate what a councilor or doctor might be telling them.

At first, Amos’ story sounded too good to be true, but it was only when the young people were given the chance to ask us, a group of journalists visiting with the International Reporting Project, any questions, and each one was about services for deaf people in the US and the UK, that it became obvious how left out young deaf people really are here, and how much of difference it can make to have a forum where these messages can reach them, and where they are free to talk about sensitive and often taboo subjects where others are listening, without passing judgement.

Cat de Lange is reporting on HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria on a trip to Zambia with the International Reporting Project (IRP).