Desire to communicate with deaf siblings motivates Elizabeth Wanjiku to learn sign language

Elizabeth Wambui

Elizabeth Wambui, a freelance sign interpreter, during the interview in Nyeri town on October 11. 


Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

Elizabeth Wanjiku is a sign language interpreter, a profession she has practiced for over 10 years.

The 42-year-old says that her job has taken her to places she would never have visited had she stuck to her main job, fashion and design.

Growing up, she recalls that she wanted to be a teacher, but found herself studying a course in dressmaking since her parents could not afford to take her to school to learn teaching. The decision to become a designer was influenced by her mother and elder sister who were already tailors.

But as she studied for her certificate course in fashion after completing high school, she decided to take up part-time afternoon classes in Sign Language Interpretation at the Federation of Deaf Women Empowerment Network- Kenya (Fedwen) branch in Nyeri town.

 The need to acquire the skill, which took her two years to study, was inspired by a desire to communicate effectively with her three deaf siblings. Elizabeth says that her family often experienced difficulty when communicating with the trio, and decided to change this by learning sign language.

“I had always been my siblings’ helper and interpreter from as young as three years, but I always felt that I could do more for them by advancing the basic skills in sign language they had taught me,” she explains.

Tailoring shop

Besides this, she hoped to earn a living from the skill, by being the go between deaf and hearing people. Even before learning the skill officially, Elizabeth says that due to her interaction and close relationship with the deaf while growing up, many people would approach her for help.

“In Nyeri town where I live, most deaf people would send me text messages seeking help while others would come to our tailoring shop,” she adds.

Most of her customers were not well off, as such, they would pay her between Sh300 and Sh500 to translate for them, while in other cases she would only get a reimbursement of the fare she had used.

Today, when she gets hired to interpret in workshops involving the deaf, she earns at least Sh2,500 per hour. Elizabeth is engaged as a sign language interpreter during Nyeri’s County Government’s public functions, as well as during the county assembly, in court, churches and during political functions.

Service providers in government-run institutions such hospitals and courts do not understand sign language, making it difficult for the deaf to get services, this is where Elizabeth and her fellow sign language interpreters come in. In a good month, she takes up to five jobs, while in a bad month she gets only one.

The busiest period in her career was during the past campaign season, which saw her hired by a number of politicians and organisations whenever they needed to communicate with the deaf.

The most unique place she has offered her services was during a wedding ceremony involving two deaf people.

“It was also the most challenging since I had to bring out the expressions and feelings of the two who were being wedded, the sincerity between the two had to be seen in me as a sign interpreter,” she explains.

To make a good sign interpreter, Elizabeth advises one to be interested and passionate about the career, adding that professional qualifications are not enough.

Sign language

If you are a graduate in this field looking for employment, she advises that you first interact with the deaf and know where they frequent.

“Most of the jobs that I have gotten have been because this group of people has advocated for the need of a sign interpreter during various functions, so that they feel included too,” she says.

The job, she says, is demanding, and to get better at it, one has to spend time with the deaf to learn from them.

 She explains that sign language is not universal as it varies depending on the culture of the community.

“Because of this, whenever invited to functions, one has to arrive prior and involve the deaf community earlier so as to understand how they sign different words,” she points out.

From experience, she says that the profession comes with a lot of mental fatigue as it is exhausting to listen, process what has been said then communicate. She adds that the skill is not only about the hand gestures, but facial expression, which should include emotion.

 “For instance, when a deaf person is hurting, it is supposed to be seen in the interpreter because the rule is that it is not him who is speaking but the deaf person,” says Elizabeth.

A good sign interpreter, she continues, should go through a speech prior to internalise the words, a factor that makes it easier to communicate effectively and precisely. And while in action, a good sign interpreter is not supposed to be the centre of interest, as he is only there to facilitate communication, therefore, the audience should see the deaf person.

 The job comes with its fair share of challenges, for instance, Elizabeth has at times been requested to offer her services for free, a factor that makes her work difficult.

Sometimes, she also works with speakers who are inaudible or too fast, posing a challenge to how she conveys the message. During such situations, she says that she is forced to inform her audience about the challenge she is facing.

Another challenge lies in interpreting law terminology to the deaf in court, such that at times, she has to procure the services of deaf lawyers, who pass on the information to her clients making it three-way communication.

Elizabeth feels that the government has not done much to bridge the gap between the deaf and the rest of the community. She further notes that as the country moves towards digital learning, online lectures are a challenge to the deaf because some institutions do not involve sign language interpreters.

Currently, there are also no guidelines in place on how much sign language interpreters should be paid.

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