Judy Kihumba: From househelp to top sign language interpreter

Judy Kihumba,

Judy Kihumba, a sign language interpreter. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Judy Kihumba is a sign language interpreter and an advocate of maternal mental health and wellness of deaf nursing mothers. She is also the founder of Talking Hands, Listening Eyes on PPD (THLEP), which focuses on walking the motherhood journey with deaf mothers and breaking the silence around postpartum depression (PPD). Judy is also the official treasurer at Kenya Sign Language Interpreters Association (KSLIA) and a board member Of Kiaraho Primary School in Tetu, Nyeri County. A wife and proud mother of two girls, Ms Kihumba shares her Career Path with Nation.


Educational background

I went through the 8-4-4 education system until class 8. After 2 years I joined REV Muhoro School for the Deaf.  After completing it I joined University of Nairobi sign language research Centre where I did a certificate in basic Sign language and Interpretation. I later Joined St Paul’s University where I did a Degree in Development Communication and PR. I later did a Diploma in Trauma counselling with the Kenya Association of Professional Counsellors.

Share with us your career journey. (How/where you started - position, scope of role)

My passion for sign language started way back in High School at Rev Muhoro School for the Deaf. One may ask how a hearing girl ended up in a school for the deaf. After my 0-levels, I was to join a provincial high school which never happened due to lack of school fees. I had to postpone school for two years and worked as a house help to raise fees for my high school education. I could only afford the fee to join this school for the deaf which is close to my home in Nyeri. My initial days were challenging as I had no prior knowledge of sign language which was the only language of communication. As I continued interacting with the deaf students my passion for sign language began to grow and has been a continuous journey since then.

I joined the University of Nairobi sign language research centre where I sharpened my skills. I later Joined St Paul’s University where I did a degree in development communication and PR. I later did a diploma in trauma counselling. After I lost my dad, so much was happening around my life. I had to shelve my master’s degree in gender and development which I want to go back to next year. Immediately after high school, I got a job with United Disability Empowerment in Kenya (UDEK).

Here, I got a lot of exposure in the disability world. In 2010, I was privileged to be selected among the committee of experts who toured the country to create awareness about the new Constitution and a constant interaction with the deaf communities at the time formed my career journey and shaped the path I have taken since then. It was during this time that organisations like LRF, ECK and now IEBC contacted me to interpret their civic education training materials. Through this I have been working with various media houses to interpret their news bulletins. I have also done a lot of commercial adverts in sign language, the latest one being on demystifying the stigma around Covid-19 patients.

I’m still growing and looking to keep soaring high in the Deaf world.

What do you remember most about your career journey?

The day I was invited to interpret for the late President Daniel Moi. I couldn’t believe it. It gave me so much joy and satisfaction.  

What has been a key driver of your growth? Lessons learnt, celebrations and failures. Attitudes, habits, principles etc.

The lesson learnt was ‘never give up’.

Your willpower is one of the few things in life you can control. When doubts slip in, don’t get bogged down. Motivate yourself to keep going!

Celebrations:  I’m looking forward to a time I will be recognised for my great effort in being a bridge for the deaf women in healthcare because there is a huge gap that needs to be filled. I try my best especially now that I work alongside Pumwani Maternity Hospital in ensuring that the deaf mothers access medical attention and breaking the information to their level of understanding.

I have a case of a young lady who was looking for help to go back to high school after losing her sight. Today, I can proudly say I intervened and now she is back to class.

Failures: Enough times I have lost opportunities because of fear and fear of intimidation especially after I had to shelve continuing with my master’s degree. It was one of the most conflicting things within me.

My Principle: My trust and great faith in God has brought me this far. Being patient and trusting the process. I am also very aggressive.

What are the most important values to you that you live by and keep you grounded and shape the way you work and live.

Empathy: To show and care about the feelings of others. Having experienced PPD I have walked the journey before and I feel how lonely it can be so I’m ready to walk with the deaf mums all the way.

Reliability: I have realised that it’s not enough to simply be emphatic to the deaf people’s challenges around me but I have to stand out and do something for them especially the young mothers.

Who are the people or relationships that you can single out that were useful in your career growth and how did they influence your trajectory?

Dr. Lucy Njagi from University of Nairobi. I call her mum; she is the one who encouraged me to go back to school and even supported me. To date, she is my cheerleader. She has walked with me in this life to where I am today and I owe her.

There are two teachers in my high school who encouraged me and held my hand when I almost gave up. The principal then, Mr Patrick Muita, who even had to look for a sponsor for me so that I could continue with education and Mrs Mercy Kamangu who was my motivation in school and literary my mother in school. She made sure that I never lacked the basic requirements in school as a girl.

After University I was a bit confused with priorities in life and even now that I am still work in progress, my best friend, Dr Florence Nderitu, has walked with me and even in my future aspirations, she is one true friend who will tell me things as they are. She has kept reminding me of aspirations to further my studies and achieve what I really wanted in life.

What accomplishment are you most proud of in life?

Beating all the odds and going back to school even after thinking it was the end of education. Also following my heart of not giving up in education.

When I see the deaf connect with the word of God and understand it, it gives me such great fulfilment because many deaf people don’t interact with the Bible in church and school level due to communication barriers.

After I went through PPD, I started walking with the deaf mums and through Talking Hands Listening Eyes (Thlep) initiative that supports deaf mums by being a bridge between the deaf moms and health workers as it enables them receive better medical attention — the smiles they give when they have been effectively heard is heavenly for me.

Key decisions you might have taken along your career?

Going back to school after two years working as a house help was the best decision that I ever made in my life.

When I worked with committee of experts, I was paid a lot of money according to me. I decided to pay for my degree course even though I knew that I would have done other things with that money, or even enjoy my life and forget about school.

Going back to the university, I realised I needed myself more than education and I had to tell myself it’s okay not to be okay and focus on my daughter and my mental wellness.

What is your current role and scope of job?

I work at PCEA St Andrew’s Church as a disability ministry coordinator.  We have two congregations here in Nairobi and Kitengela. It involves walking the spiritual nurturing journey with them and sometimes being a mother, pastor, counsellor and mediator in case of marital issues.

I act as the liaison between the pastors and the deaf people.

What would you tell your younger self?

Be patient, but don’t settle.

Don’t wait passively. Life doesn’t wait for you. Seize opportunities that come your way. Decide what you want to do with your life and determine the things you need to do to get there. Start doing, now. Even if you take small steps, these steps will bring you closer to your goals, wherever they may be.

Be focused and do the work.

Being good at something requires some effort. Being really good at something requires a little more effort. But being great at something requires lots of focused effort. Sure, we’ve all heard about the overnight successes, underdog geniuses and college dropouts who made it to the top in the blink of an eye, but scratch beneath the surface of any individual with rare talent, and you’ll find someone who has put in thousands of hours honing their skills. There are no shortcuts.

What would you advise the youth in Kenya today?

Be humble and cultivate relationships.

Never be too proud to admit that you’ve made a mistake, to ask for help, to apologise, or to thank others. Even in data-driven, results-oriented high-tech professions, people matter. Cultivate good relationships with a wide variety of people. As you does this, mind your mental health. You can only do so much at a given time.

Have a personal advisory board or mentor

It’s a myth that you can do it all on your own. You don’t know everything. Accept it. Find people who know the things you don’t know, or people who may think differently about the things you think you have mastered, and ask for their feedback. You don’t have to suit up and hold weekly board meetings, but everyone — no matter where they are in life —should have their own inner circle of trusted advisors to support them and help guide them through life’s decisions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Someone has to have your back. Someone who can see through your smiling eyes and tell you are not okay.

Future plans in your career and in life

I’m planning to go back and finish my master’s degree.

I’m really looking to more advocacies especially to the Ministry of Health to see the maternal mental wellness of the deaf women has been given a priority.

I’m looking forward to see my Thlep grow to an organisation that will advocate for deaf mothers internationally.

What do you do for fun?

I love reading and writing. I’m currently reading for the third time; facing my Giants by Max Lucado.

I’m writing an autobiography of my late dad which is giving me so much satisfaction.

I also love socialising with my beautiful daughters who completes my world. We learn sign language and so many other skills. I can proudly say my six-year-old can communicate fluently in sign language and my two-year-old can also do it and even sign her name.

If there was one thing you could change about your past, what would that be?

I once missed an opportunity that was so promising in my career growth because I felt Inadequate just because someone said I didn’t have the qualifications yet I was more qualified in terms of experience and exposure. If it was today I would challenge my expertise in the field.

It has taken so long to learn to say No to what I’m not comfortable with. Today I look back and wish I had done it earlier but I’m happy I have learnt.