Deaf clergyman Joannes Owino Siang’a elected to World Council of Churches

Joannes Owino Siang’a

Reverend Joannes Owino Siang’a on October 12. 

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

Reverend Joannes Owino Siang’a comes through as extremely reticent. While yours truly has not met him physically, she can testify that it was two friends who made this story possible. One Ms Njeri Kang’ethe, acting Dean, Faculty of Law, at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, and two, Miss Susan Wangui Nderitu, sign language interpreter/instructor and mentor to the churchman.

Ms Kang’ethe bore the good tidings of Rev Owino’s election to the World Council of Churches Executive Committee (WCC ExCom), and Miss Nderitu of PCEA St Andrew’s Church did behind-the-scenes cajoling to secure my almost aborted interview with Rev Owino who pleaded short notice.

According to Dr Agnes Abuom, whose nine-year tour of duty as Moderator, WCC’s Central Committee (CentCom), coincidentally ended with Rev Owino’s election, this is the first time a hearing-impaired person is sitting on the high-profile ExCom.

Rev Owino doesn’t take his election for granted. “I was truly surprised. I’m humbled to be in this huge role but I’m trusting the Lord will lead me and give me wisdom,” he told Lifestyle in a mongrel WhatsApp-cum-email interview facilitated by his sign language interpreter, Ms Mary Mathenge, for whom the Church Minister only has praise as his link to the hearing world.

 Rev Sianga

Rev.Joannes Owino Siang'a with his wife Ruth Akinyi and children Leonida (left) and Paul.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

The ExCom – WCC’s governing body – draws its membership from churches worldwide. It meets twice a year to monitor ongoing work, supervise the budget and deal with policy matters referred to it by CentCom, which, in turn, is elected by the Assembly, WCC’s highest governing body. The Assembly meets every eight years. It was at such a gathering – the 11th General Assembly (August 31 to September 9) in Karlsruhe, Germany – that Rev Owino was elected.

“I was truly surprised,” says Rev Owino of PCEA Makupa Parish in Mombasa County’s Pwani Presbytery. He only expected to represent his church; so, “it was really a surprise to [be] appointed for the WCC ExCom and [as] the only member from Africa… I feel honoured and favoured by God and I’m trusting God to give me wisdom in this role [so] that I can bring attention of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) to WCC. My nuclear and extended family were equally surprised and happy.”

Dr Abuom’s sentiments at Rev Owino’s election express awe. “What really struck me is that with all his challenges, and with hardly any experience with ecumenical work, the Council was ready to act on its commitment to people living with disability.”

WCC hasn’t had a hearing-impaired person in the executive although they have had people with physical disabilities, she says.

“Sign language in Kenya is not quite the same as the international sign language,” Dr Abuom notes. “This is going to make the new executive more sensitive to the variety of people with disability. They’ll have to listen to the story of a person with disability not speaking for himself, but through someone else.”  This calls for boldness, she adds. Rev Owino “will need to overcome fear because, also, there are not many Africans on the Executive; they’re about three. He’ll need to know that he’s representing a whole constituency…”

The ExCom will have to understand that Rev Owino “is not going to respond the way we expect other people to respond because there are so many channels to go through.” She hastens to add: “I’m very delighted, and I think the Church is ready to support him.”

Rev Owino is aware of the challenges ahead – like “creating awareness in churches on PWDs.” This, he says, comes with challenges churches face in implementing what is needed – like “erecting ramps (he is passionate about these) and employing or training members as sign language interpreters,” which has implications for churches that are already struggling financially.

But he’s no stranger to challenges. It has been a long and bumpy ride for the hearing-impaired clergyman to the WCC. One of 10 siblings, the boy, Owino, who was fluent in Kiswahili and Dholuo, lost his hearing to meningitis at the age of seven. Though Christian, his parents, whom he describes as “under-privileged”, blamed witchcraft for his calamity. Even so, they enrolled him in Nyangoma Primary School for the Deaf in Bondo, Siaya County, from where he came to Nairobi to eke out a living from small businesses until a friend introduced him to the deaf community at PCEA St Andrew’s.

He did a certificate course in Holy Ministry between 1994 and 1995 at present-day Grace College of East Africa before enrolling for a Diploma course (1995 to 1998). “I then served as an evangelist and an elder at PCEA St Andrew’s”, before he was ordained as PCEA’s first deaf minister in 2009. Today, he ministers to six deaf congregations.

In the WCC ExCom, Rev Owino “will represent PWDs in the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (Edan).” He explains: “I’ll raise concerns of the people with disability globally...”

Edan was created by the WCC during its 8th assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1998. Since its establishment, it “has sought to pursue the place of persons with disabilities in a just society.”

The father of three and husband of Ms Ruth Akinyi elaborates: “We emphasise (that, PWDs, who face stigma) be embraced and supported to get good services and be treated well. The churchman sees his mission within Edan as “mobilising different churches to take seriously matters to do with disabilities”. His role in WCC includes working with Edan to formulate policies that support PWDs.

Rev Owino is just one of the numerous hearing-impaired persons Miss Nderitu (quote at the outset) has mentored. She is passionate about Matthew 28: 16-20. It says, in part: “…go and make disciples of all nations”– a mission that rings hollow for some 143,000 Kenyans, whom the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics considers to be hearing-impaired (2010 figures).

“I’ve known Rev Owino for 25 years. I met him while he was serving as an Evangelist in the Deaf congregation,” Miss Nderitu said. Her mentees include Ms Mathenge, Rev Owino’s personal interpreter.

“I was very happy for him to be elected (to the ExCom),” Miss Nderitu said. “He’s outgoing and passionate about PWDs. He plays a great role of bringing PWDs together for spiritual nourishment, economic empowerment trainings, sports and talent shows.” She believes Rev Owino’s appointment will see him address issues PWDs face in Church and society, and which have been ignored for long.

While Rev Owino is her “most high profile mentee”, Miss Nderitu has also mentored Rev George Obonyo and his wife Jacinta Mukari (both deaf), who are stationed at PCEA Kariobangi South, and Pastor Charles Odira, at Harvest Church for the Deaf in Kariobangi North. She also mentions Ms Rachel Waithira and Ms Mary Lucy – trained early childhood and development education teachers seeking employment. But the apple of her eye is St Andrew’s Zion Praise Team Choir, which “sings” using sign language.

Miss Nderitu’s mentorship extends to children of the hearing impaired, whom she teaches in Sunday school. “The Deaf community love people to embrace their culture by learning sign language and interacting with them; (they’re) not to be pitied.”

Her parting shot: “Without inclusion, we may never capture the bigger vision why God created us unique. It’s easier for us, the hearing community, to learn sign language than for the deaf to learn our hearing-spoken language.”