OPENING THE WAY IN KIBERA

|| Story and photos by Sean Sprague

Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Nairobi, Kenya, enables the deaf to “hear”

Amid the joyful strains of a choir dressed in colorful East African robes and ululating dancers gyrating down the aisle of a church in Nairobi, Kenya, the first few rows of the congregation are silent.

But the people there are fully participating in this Sunday liturgy, praying and singing the hymns through hand gestures. They are members of the deaf community of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.

Encompassing Kibera shantytown, the parish is one of the few in Kenya that reach out to the hearing impaired. They do it through a ministry called “Ephphatha.”

The name is inspired by an episode in Mark’s Gospel (7:31–37) where Jesus healed a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. “He was enabled to hear and speak when Our Lord said to him ‘Ephphatha: Be opened.’ This is the motto of the ministry to the deaf in Guadalupe parish,” says Father Cornelius Ssekitto, an African priest of the Apostles of Jesus, who is fluent in sign language. He became part of the Ephphatha ministry as it began in 2008 as an initiative of the Guadalupe Missionaries from Mexico, who administer the parish.

At Our Lady of Guadalupe parish deaf and non-deaf members joyfully express their faith.

The ministry, he says, revolves around the parish’s St. Joseph Small Christian Community of the Deaf, which has grown to more than 25 deaf members and 10 others who are not deaf. “One key mission of this community is to nurture the culture of inclusiveness by enabling the deaf members to read, understand and preach the Word of God and in this way nourish their faith,” Father Ssekitto says.

Each Sunday members of the deaf community attend the 11:30 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe and sit in the front rows so they can easily follow the volunteers who interpret in Kenyan Sign Language the words of the hymns and Scripture readings. Hilary Mitoya, 29, is one of the volunteers.

Weekdays he works at Barclays Bank, but on Sundays he comes to Guadalupe to help out. He explains that he has been involved in this “humble mission” for about four years, having been moved by the sight of deaf people at church not being able to participate.

“Through our services in the church we have managed to help the deaf receive their church rites such as baptism and confession,” Mitoya says. “The deaf have been encouraged to be part of the society, which before had been a silent society. If you go to a church with normal singing, clapping and dancing, the deaf are just left there alone with nobody attending to them, some people even laughing at them. This is what inspired us.”

Explaining that the deaf have often been marginalized in Kenyan society by being misunderstood, he points to Our Lady of Guadalupe parish and says, “The Church is taking a lead ensuring that the deaf get adequate evangelization and spiritual nourishment. We form networks and groups and work together and even petition bishops so the deaf can have a chance to join the priesthood and religious life. We have one member who is studying and will be the first deaf catechist ever in Kenya.”

Student Mary Kathi, deaf parishioner Steve Odima and Deacon Prosper Tumuheirwe of Apostles of Jesus to pray together in Nairobi

David Niwagaba, a seminarian with the Montfort Missionaries now working in Malawi, also championed the deaf congregation. Attending the 11:30 Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe inspired him to learn Kenyan Sign Language. He became an interpreter for the Ephphatha ministry. “I found the work interesting because the deaf show a lot of love and motivation and have great ability,” he says. “I am really thankful to the Guadalupe Missionaries who are so supportive.”

The Guadalupe Missionaries were founded in 1949 by the bishops of Mexico. This Society has strong roots in Maryknoll, having had Maryknoll Bishop Alonso Escalante as its first superior general.

The Guadalupe Missionaries share Maryknoll’s charism: to proclaim the Gospel to all, especially the poor and marginalized, including those with disabilities. In Kilifi on Kenya’s northern coast, some 500 miles from Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, Maryknoll Lay Missioner Coralis Salvador brings that spirit to the Pwani Secondary School for the Deaf.

During her 10 years as a missioner in Kenya, Salvador previously assisted aids orphans in getting an education. Now she is turning her attention to the deaf, who, she says, have been neglected in the country’s coastal region. She explains that Kenya’s three other secondary schools for the deaf are in the West.

She is learning Kenyan Sign Language so she can soon teach at the new school. Back at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Kibera, Sunday Mass ends and most of the congregation pours out of the church. But the deaf community and their non-deaf interpreters move into a side building to continue their worship.

They dance in a circle, singing and praying with their hands while those who can hear and speak add audio to the experience.

Hilary Mitoya sums up the obvious feeling of the joyful group: “We want an inclusive society, where none is judged by his mental or physical status. One humanity: that should be our agenda. It’s a huge responsibility, but we believe that with God’s guidance we are equal to the task.”

(Featured Image: Sign language enables Lay Missioner Coralis Salvador (top, right) to communicate with students at Pwani Secondary School in Kilifi.)

Sean Sprague, a photojournalist from Wales, is a frequent contributor to Maryknoll.

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Sean Sprague

Sean Sprague, a freelance photographer and writer living in Wales, U.K., is a frequent contributor to Maryknoll Magazine. Sean travels the world for a wide spectrum of development organizations, the UN and religious societies.