Unlocking the silence of Tonga’s hearing-impaired

Published: 6 February 2004 0:00 CET

Andrew Macalister in Nuku’alofa

In a small classroom, off a dusty courtyard in the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa, five-year-old Solomone Latu eagerly looks around.

In fact, Solomone is not paying much attention to his schoolbooks or to his teachers at all. He spends most of his time watching other students and their activities.

In most classrooms, such behaviour might be discouraged. But, at the Tonga Red Cross school for the hearing- and speech-impaired, Solomone is doing exactly what his teachers and parents would hope.

For Solomone is deaf, and he is learning the most important skill of all: how to communicate with his family, friends and peers.

In the silent classroom, as his seven classmates create rapid-fire hand signs between themselves and the teachers, Solomone’s eyes quickly follow. The intelligent and alert young boy is absorbing all he can see and reproducing their actions with his own hands.

For head teacher, Silongo Fakasi’i’eiki, it is a far cry from the little boy who began attending the class earlier in the year.

“During the first week, he didn’t want to come,” she recalls. “He cried and cried.”

“But by the end of the week, he couldn’t wait to come. Each morning, he would be waiting at the gate for the school van, and ‘asking’ his parents to take him over.”

“He just started to look at the school books and learn from the other kids. It’s a dream for me to see him develop,” she says.

More than a classroom

The Tonga Red Cross school is more than just a classroom. It is also giving students like Solomone a chance to learn to communicate, to socialise and to develop confidence as they make their way through the world.

It is the only such school in Tonga, and Silongo is the only non-hearing-impaired person on the main island of Tongatapu who can sign.

Without the school, she says, these children would face a life of very limited options. “In Tonga, there is no-one signing at school or at home,” Silongo says. “When they come here, the children rely on pointing, trying to talk, or drawing to tell adults what they need.”

Children who are deaf or hearing-impaired are not accepted at primary schools. If they do not come to this school, they are usually kept at home. “They would do nothing if not at school,” Silongo says.

Unable to communicate properly, and with limited opportunities to make friends or get work, the children can grow up into troubled teenagers, often with behavioural problems and getting into trouble in their village or with authorities.

During a survey of Tongatapu during the year, the Tonga Red Cross identified a further 24 hearing-impaired children or teenagers who are not getting an education at all.

“I feel bad for them,” says Silongo. “I know there’s a hope for these hearing-impaired students and there is something we can do to improve their lives.”

But the school faces a continual battle to get the children to attend. “Some parents feel ashamed because they think their children are disabled,” Silongo says. “Others don’t know about the school.”

“What we tell them is that it’s a new life for them if they bring the children to us.”

Tonga Red Cross secretary general, Sione Taumoefolau, says his society is committed to reaching these vulnerable children wherever it can.

“The school is having a very real and tangible benefit for these children and their families. It is all about giving them a shot at life.”

“In coming years, we need to reach out to as many villages as possible and raise awareness of the school and what it can do for children.”

But, he says, the Tonga Red Cross also has to face up to its own logistical challenges. Like most Pacific Red Cross Societies, with small populations and low per-capita income, it struggles to find the resources to support its programmes and to meet the need that exists in the community.

For the school, Sione says, this means running it on a shoestring budget, with a battered second-hand van and two small classrooms attached to the Red Cross offices, and relying on donations and volunteer support to provide lunches and outings for the students.

Providing a future

Back in the classroom, however, the benefits of this commitment are obvious. Silongo and fellow teacher Saane Uhi are running a blackboard exercise, drawing everyday objects on the board and asking each child to show the relevant sign for it.

Each exercise is reinforced through lip-reading in Tongan as well, as the children will ultimately have to rely on lip-reading to get by in their local community.

And, while the students have a full curriculum, ranging from maths and English to Tongan culture and physical education, the benefits of this learning extend well beyond the classroom.

Two students, for example, have recently graduated and moved on to full-time employment, and the current class shows the benefits of sharing a common challenge. They are a happy group, despite their age and social differences, and have learnt to be highly interactive with each other – social skills that will stand them in good stead as they mature.

Solomone is the silent testament to this. As the newest and youngest student in the class, he is on a huge learning curve. As he makes the most of the new opportunities each day presents, he is slowly but surely unlocking the private world of deafness he had been born into.

“If we educate the children, maybe they are going to have a future,” says Silongo. “And that is the ultimate reward.”