Deaf and dumb and at the pinnacle of varsity career

Dr Ndurumo. Photo/JARED NYATAYA

What you need to know:

  • The disease made him completely deaf and also robbed him of his speech ability.
  • His appointment at Moi University made him the first deaf lecturer in Kenya.
  • In the US, life took another turn for the better; for the first time in his life, he was given an interpreter

Had a kind missionary couple not changed the course of his life, Dr Michael Ndurumo reckons he would most likely have ended up a carpenter, a tailor, a cobbler or a stonemason.

After all, he argues, these are the remnant occupations society has reserved for people like him who have disabilities.

But, thanks to the couple, his life took a dramatic turn for the better. They threw him a rare lifeline that enabled him to explore his God-given talents and abilities despite being deaf and dumb.

Today, feted at home and abroad, he is one of the few Africans who have overcome handicaps to rise to the pinnacle of their careers.

Thus, Dr Ndurumo, 56, is a shining example of what personal determination and focus can do for one.

More importantly, he is living proof to society that, given the chance, the encouragement and the necessary support, people with disabilities can be productive, rather than a burden.

“I have learnt that there is no limitation to the human ability,” says the senior lecturer at Moi University of Eldoret.

“Had I thought of myself as a lesser human being because of being deaf, then I would have surely ended up a burden to society instead.”  

Born in Marua Village, Nyeri, in 1952, Ndurumo in December 1960 contracted meningitis, an infection of the brain membranes. The disease made him completely deaf and also robbed him of his speech ability.

He was just eight years old then and a Standard One pupil at Muruguru primary school in Nyeri.

It seemed to him that the disease had sealed his fate and consigned him to lesser vocations in life. But his parents did not give up on him.

Whereas others would have lost the hope of educating such a child, Ndurumo’s condition seemed to have injected in his parents a steely determination to have their son succeed in his studies — and in life.  

“Were it not for my parents, I would be nothing today,” recalls the father of two. “They were poor, but they gave me the greatest gift a parent can give a child — love and understanding.

They did not reject me as other parents do their children with disabilities. They made sure that I went to school and achieved the best in life, my condition notwithstanding.”

There being no primary school for the deaf near home and his parents being so poor, young Ndurumo was forced to study with normal children.

Luckily for him, his teachers and classmates accepted his condition and did all they could to make sure he did not fall behind in his studies.

“Although they had no training of how to handle children with disabilities, my teachers always encouraged me to pursue education,” says the fourth-born of eight children.

“They would write a lot on the blackboard just for my sake. My peers too would give me their notes to read and assisted me where they could.”

The youngster was a bright pupil. In 1968, he sat his Certificate of Primary Education examination and passed highly.

Unfortunately, he was forced to stay home for a year, unable to proceed with to secondary school because the schools did not know what to do with him. 

“Many people never thought that a deaf person could actually continue with education to high school level. They had never seen any before and so they concluded that I was just joking around. No-one was willing to give me a chance,” he recounts.

After unsuccessfully looking for a suitable school for a year, the teenager was introduced to Dr Lowry and Ruth Mallory when he was 18.

Dr Mallory was the headmaster of Nyeri Baptist, a small Christian secondary school in Nyeri. He was asked by an education officer to accept Ndurumo as a student in June 1970.

In 1971, he moved to St Peters Mumias High to be close to the school for the deaf. In the same year, he went to Harrison-Chilhowee Baptist Academy in Tennessee, USA, becoming the institution’s first foreign student.

This arrangement was made by Dr Mallory who had noted his exceptional academic abilities while at Nyeri Baptist.

In the US, life took another turn for the better for Ndurumo; for the first time in his life, he was given an interpreter to accompany him to class and was therefore forced to learn sign language.

Previously, he had been communicating by writing notes. Telling of his academic brilliance and indefatigable spirit, Ndurumo went on to complete two years of high school in a year.

Furthermore, he taught himself English by reading the dictionary since the disease struck him even before he had learnt the language.

“I was mesmerised by the structure of the English language and had to learn it through all effort,” he says.

In 1974, he joined Gallaudet University in Washington where he took general studies, including psychology, a field he was to specialise in later in life.

In 1976, he moved to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, which is an institution for the handicapped and admits students from different parts of the world.

He ultimately became the third deaf African and first East African to acquire a doctorate degree. The other two are West Africans.

“Although I am happy about my achievement, there would be more people with the equivalent of my qualifications or even better had they been given the necessary support in their academic endeavours,” he points out.

He enrolled for his masters degree in education administration, psychology and special education at the same university. In 1980, he completed his PhD studies in the same discipline.

After graduation, he took up a teaching job at his former high school in Tennessee, and later moved to Gardner-Webb University, North Carolina.

It might have not been easy competing with normal students, says Dr Ndurumo, but it was precisely this challenge that gave him the inspiration to exert himself and do the best he could in life.

“I always compared myself with others so as to know how I was faring,” he says.

“Although I realised my limitation, I did not allow it to hinder me from excelling in those activities which I felt I could do equally with other people,” he says with a touch of smug satisfaction.

He returned home in 1982 and joined the Kenya Institute of Education as a curriculum developer. He was charged with the task of developing a curriculum for special education and training for teachers.

He gradually rose to become a senior principal and head of special education at KIE.

After 22 years with KIE, the desire for a fresh challenge saw him resign his job in 2003 for a teaching one at Moi University where he was put in charge of the department of educational psychology. 

His appointment made him the first deaf lecturer in Kenya.

“Teaching was my first love,” Dr Ndurumo says. “I enjoy sharing my knowledge with students. I find it very enlightening. To me, everyday is a learning day and that is what life is all about.”

Although he says he enjoys his new job very much, it is not without challenges. Given that he is teaching normal students, communication is one such challenge.

“It becomes difficult sometimes to communicate effetively with the students since they do not understand sign language,” he says.