Blantyre, Malawi — Sr. Emma Kulombe’s call to serve children who are both deaf and blind dates back more than a decade when she was a special-needs education student. As part of her studies, she was asked to complete an assessment for a child unable to see, hear or speak.
Generally, deafblind children suffer stigma in Malawi; some parents hide them away. And being a poor country, Malawi struggles to provide education because it requires a lot of resources. One deafblind person needs several others to work with him or her.
The main challenge is that the children cannot talk about their inner feelings: when they fall ill, for example, someone must interpret how they are feeling, what they need and what type of love they expect from those around them.
It is against this sad background that one nun, Sr. Emma Kulombe, 53, decided to become a mother to such children. She describes it as a special calling to do such work.
“I chose this ministry because it is God’s calling to assist the needy who do not see and hear. I have passion for the disabled, especially the deafblind and God himself taught me what the children need and what I should do to enjoy my work,” Kulombe explained.
“At first I wanted to work with the children who did not see but later I found that God was calling me for more than just seeing but also to help children who could not see, hear or speak.”
Kulombe, a sister of the Servants of Blessed Virgin Mary in the Blantyre Archdiocese in southern Malawi, says not many people can work with this special group.
“If their parents do not love them, how much more difficult is it for other people? Their future is uncertain,” she said, adding that some sectors in society ridicule her for taking care of the children.
Kulombe established the Chisombezi DeafBlind Centre for children in 2007 with assistance from Norwegian Church Aid. Later in the same year, Signo Foundation, a Norwegian group that offers services to deaf and blind people, took over the partnership. Cross Catholic Outreach is another donor. Small Christian communities nearby also help with food and clothing from time to time.
Three teachers with special needs certificates, four teacher aides and four caregivers work at Chisombezi. Thirteen children live here, three come on specific days of the week, 25 receive home-based education and two are on the waiting list.
The center was licensed by the Malawi government in November 2013, said Rebecca Phwiitiko, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. It can now get monthly government funding; teachers are paid by the government, too.
Kulombe admits that teaching the deaf and blind students is challenging.
“It demands a one-to-one approach. We use tactile signing for the children who are totally blind and for those with low vision, sign language,” Kulombe explained. “The children understand teaching with the aid of symbols as they cannot use a blackboard.”
The day at the center starts with a shower, then breakfast, morning assembly, which is followed by the morning meeting, then class work and socializing.
The road to opening Chizombezi was challenging, too.
After her studies at Montfort Teacher Training College in 2001 Sr. Kulombe joined the resource center at Montfort Demonstration School. Her work included assessments for a blind and deaf boy who was bed-ridden and for a girl who had lost vision and hearing after meningitis.
Her passion for deafblind children grew. She and a fellow teacher, Ezekiel Kumwenda, decided to take up this special work. One of their first two pupils, a boy, died after 11 months.
As they say, God’s ways are mysterious. In October 2003 church leaders from Norway visited the resource center. Kulombe asked if they could share information about teaching deafblind children. That December, the church elders organized a trip for the nun and three men working with her to visit Norway and learn how their colleagues worked there.
“I was assigned to look at how the deafblind are taught, look into the deaf dictionary, vocational skills for the deaf and post primary education for the deaf,” she explained.
In September 2004 the Norwegian church elders asked her to identify 10 deafblind children in Malawi for a three-month pilot project with help from Norwegian Church Aid.
The project motivated the Norwegians and they selected Kulombe to oversee a deafblind education program in Malawi. That was the beginning of this special ministry, which now has about 40 children.
The main challenge continues to be communication because it is so hard for the children to express their feelings.
“The deafblind live in their own world and sometimes it is difficult to understand the way they behave’ Kulombe said. “They have problems in interacting with others.”
But there is also joy in caring for the children.
“I find peace, joy, God’s blessings and life fulfillment when I am working with these children. I am helping Christ who has no eyes and ears. I feel great joy when I get closer to them, as society keeps its distance from them.”
[Deogratias Mmana is a Malawi-based reporter and editor.]