Deaf People Living and Communicating in African Histories, c. 960s - 1960s

New, much extended Version 5.01, incorporating an article first published in Disability & Society vol. 19, pp. 531-45; August 2004, titled then "Locating deaf people, gesture and sign in African histories, 1450s-1950s". The latter material is republished with permission of Carfax Publishing, Taylor & Francis. Visits 100 deaf people in 42 nations, across 1000 years of African history. From servants and schoolchildren to scientists, soldiers and statesmen, using every possible means of communication. Internet publication URL:

All documents by M. Miles.

M. Miles (West Midlands, UK)


Glimpses of the lives and communication of deaf and hearing impaired people are seen in one thousand years of history across Africa. Textual evidence of 100 historical deaf adults and children, of hundreds more in groups, and of gestural communication and formal Sign Language, appears from 42 African nations, sourced in travellers' accounts, legal and genealogical records, government reports, institutional and missionary archives, academic theses, linguistic studies, folklore, ethnography, novels, religious narrative, mime and dance. The data may assist in construction of valued identities and evidence-based cultural histories. Uses and interpretations remain for deaf people to discuss and choose according to their own varied interests and objectives.


- South Africa
- Francophone, Saharan & Mediterranean Africa
- Creativity
- Getting a hearing
- History to hand
- Fostering a future


Facing the tides of cultural globalisation in anglophone mass media and marketing, dominated by euro american, able-bodied images, middle-brow values and a choice of frenetic or faux-cool lifestyles, is it possible for cultural and linguistic minorities to maintain themselves as distinct, admirable and interesting, not merely a caricature, nor something 'weird'? Different groups within such minorities may pursue complementary or conflicting agendas, e.g. seeking integration without assimilation and trying to self-define identities that are more authentic, or at least more exciting, while soliciting public recognition of their valuable different-ness. These processes sometimes involve construction of a 'victim history' of oppressions. Beyond victimhood, concurrent moves may occur to discover or invent valued histories recounting worthy roots, impressive deeds, minority ancestors who wore suits or at least found a niche in historical records.

Against the 'Respectably Suited' tendency, there may be a competing dive to find tough raggedness, as for example where disabled people celebrate the 'Insubordinate Crip', not tamed or house-trained. A critical view of these trends and processes can be important for deaf/Deaf people in Africa, who face ongoing battles first for physical survival [1] and then to steer their own lives and cultural frames. Robert Chimedza (1998) underlines the need to resist the cultural imperialism of foreign aid agencies dictating agendas, for Southern deaf organisations, that suit the ideologies of far distant societies.

Lindsay Moeletsi Dunn (2000) names some 'suits' among the Black Deaf, conceding that many of them are known because they achieved the nirvana of studying at Gallaudet University. That roll began in 1959 with Ludwig Ahwere Bafo, a deaf Ghanaian teacher who had made early efforts to identify deaf children needing education (Okyere & Addo, 1999, p. 147). There has been little subsequent public knowledge of Mr Bafo's life, apart from a brief publication on ethics (Bafo, 1994). Before the privileged cadre that went abroad for training from the 1960s onward, there have been rather few deaf people known, named, and documented in African history. Minorities that have traditionally been poorly educated or used a language without recognised literature are naturally disadvantaged when trying, several generations later, to retrieve any valued history. Yet without some real-life people, dates and deeds, any such cultural histories remain mythical, hypothetical, and ultimately not very convincing. Fortunately, there is good reason to think that deaf and hearing-impaired people were known across Africa during several millennia. They left traces, though it is seldom obvious where to find them and the evidence is usually fragmentary. [2]

Are deaf Africans in groups now seeking such roots? In Ethiopia, whose people are often well aware of their rich cultural history, officers of the National Association of the Deaf admitted 15 years ago that many deaf Ethiopians hardly value their sign language (SL), and "still think that the language of the hearing is better. This is because we have not yet developed to a stage where the deaf have an identity of their own" (Admasu & Derso, 1991). That may be true for many, yet from the rising generation a sharply different picture is given by an Ethiopian Deaf woman, Kibra Taye (1993). A distinguished representative of the Ugandan Deaf, Alex Ndeezi (1997) has also suggested a valued identity and history, tracing roots back to an early Bugandan ruler, Kiggala, believed to have been deaf. [3] There is no rule for predicting how deaf Africans may pick up their cultural histories, nor for when they 'should' do so. Paddy Ladd (2003, p. 156) perceives eight "overlapping and interacting stages" in the development of Deaf Brit identities, starting with "social welfare reform" and leading toward "the rediscovery of Deaf history" and the inauguration of formal Deaf Studies. That progression is not, however, prescribed as a norm or critical path. Nor does the complex reformulation by Rosalyn Darling (2003), of her earlier typology of identity construction, claim applicability beyond 'most Western societies'; yet Darling does advocate much more detailed studies of people's actual disability experiences.

This paper, while naming and documenting deaf individuals and groups, also illustrates some of the range of textual materials that might assist deaf people in Africa to construct experience-based cultural histories from medieval times to the 1960s. The major focus is on deaf people living their lives, rather than on historical accounts of how hearing people provided services to a few deaf people. [4] This adds a further lens to the major questions that historians have posed about poor and marginalised people in Africa: "their identity, numbers, characteristics, and location" (Iliffe, 1987, p. 1). Critical theorists reading the material below might perceive some distortions by writers using 'medical', 'deficit', 'individual' or 'disability' models of deafness. Some may wish to identify 'oppressive discourses', e.g. of colonialism, racism, or hearing people's assumption of superiority. The present author, reading the quoted materials in their historical context, has not found it so easy to categorise the thoughts of the very varied writers, editors or translators of texts mentioning deaf people, often in odd crevices or footnotes. Nor is it yet known what biases in the material will be perceived by current organisations of deaf people in Africa. [5] Mature, evidence-based and critically evaluated theoretical and analytical frameworks may be more useful at a later stage, when much more evidence has been collected and made easily available, and with participation by the cultural protagonists.

Another limit must be emphasized: this paper is not a Pan-African Beauty Contest for Distinguished Deaf People! Those who were deaf in Africa in the 1960s or earlier, and who do not find themselves here, should not feel neglected or insulted. Out of millions, the present study shows up 100 people, a sample from the humble and the great, who were some time seen "alive and deaf" and were noticed, described, and enshrined in some kind of document.


The present aim is to inspire further collection and appraisal of a better quantity and quality of historical data on deaf individuals in Africa, with a sceptical eye on sources and biases, from which some patterns characteristic of Africa might eventually become apparent. A current acknowledged bias is that the available euro-language textual sources tend to name male deaf Africans in contact with Europeans, or of European ethnicity, who were thus hardly typical 'deaf people in Africa'. Yet, even if unusually close to Europeans, the deaf black man often had an anonymous, subordinate and voiceless role, like the policeman's servant whom Charles Orpen noticed. Dr Orpen had founded a notable school for the deaf in Ireland, then became a minister of religion at Colesberg, Cape Province, South Africa. He reported c. 1848 that, "The chief constable has a deaf and dumb Caffreman, that he caught in the woods in the last war but one. He has had him ever since, and he is an excellent servant, sober, honest, and faithful." (Le Fanu, 1860, p. 161). The terms used to introduce this servant could now be considered grossly insulting, but in the 1840s were merely descriptive. Orpen was clearly impressed by this deaf African's work and life.

Further, the available historical evidence seldom differentiates the various levels of hearing impairment, or between people congenitally or prelingually deaf, and those deafened later. When seeking worthy 'Deaf ancestors', there is a tendency to include notable people with mild hearing impairment arising perhaps in their senior years, even if they became famous long before that impairment. Gallaudet University website "Deaf Biographies Index" thus lists the famous Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu; yet also impartially lists the notorious Francisco Macias Nguema (1924-1979). The latter, during his bloody dictatorship of Equatorial Guinea 1968-1979, progressively became deaf, and also seriously unbalanced (Decalo, 1989, 53-55, 75). As noticed above, the terminology of many earlier writers is also now unpalatable (e.g. the usual 'deaf and dumb', 'sourds-muets', 'doofstomme'), but has not been altered here. Problems of bias and selection may be reduced by enlisting and inspiring more people in more African countries to collect relevant materials and to share their data for mutual benefit. [6]

The ordering below is mostly under thematic headings, but many items could equally well have appeared under other headings. The present arrangement involves leaps across great expanses of African space and time, and some possible ethno-cultural conflicts of perceived values. How should one appraise the value of sharply different nuggets, such as the deaf Xhosa woman glimpsed in dispute with her deaf husband during the great cattle-killing debate of 1856-1857 (Peires, 1986, p. 451), as against the deaf social worker Frida Hartley (Clear, 1977), who in the 1920s opened the first Women's Shelters in Johannesburg? Modern genealogical research on Dutch settlers in South Africa shows up twelve Janse van Rensburg children, among whom Hendrik Petrus, 1784-1841, "deaf but otherwise well", was given charge of his "deaf and dumb" older brother Willem (b. 1763), and disabled sister Anna Sophia (1768-1842), by their parents' will (Janse van Rensburg family, n.d.). The traveller Henry Lichtenstein (1812, I: 163) lunched at their farm in 1803, noting that, "The family communicated very readily with them by signs."

How should that family scene rate, in Deaf History of Africa, against the reported glimpse of a solitary, nameless, deaf 'River Bushman' paddling his canoe through a swamp north of the Kalahari, near Maun now in Botswana, in 1955? At this sighting, Laurens van der Post (1958, p. 131) making his first amateurish search for the 'authentic Bushman', "wanted to send someone hastening to bring him back". Van der Post then learnt that "it would be useless because he was deaf and dumb." The man had lived alone for years, trapping birds and fish deep in the swamp. (Did the explorer embroider with romantic spin, as was his habit?) The domesticated deaf Boers, supporting one another on their farm, seem worlds away from the deaf swamp-dweller, 150 years later, who worked his own model of Independent Living (to retroject some recent spin... but was the Bushman solitary by choice, or isolated by others' prejudice, or a bit of both?)


Historical space occupied by deaf people is suggested from antiquity in North Africa, three millennia before the "960s" when this paper will find the remains of its earliest 'named deaf person'. Egyptian hieroglyphs include a lament over hearing loss in old age, ascribed to Ptahhotep (fl. 2450 BC) (Zaba, 1956, pp. 69-70; Erman, trans. Blackman 1927, p. 55). The 16th century BC Ebers papyrus indicates that, from the medical point of view, "Deafness was well understood and several words mean 'to be deaf'" in ancient Egypt (Nunn, 1996, p. 94). This is confirmed by the ancient clinical knowledge and skills examined in detail by Ahmes Pahor (1992). An early suggestion of sign or gestural language appears in a series of Egyptian magisterial admonitions to an idle schoolboy or clerk: "Thou art one who is deaf and does not hear, to whom men make (signs) with the hand", in the Papyrus Koller, "dated approximately to the end of the 19th Dynasty" or around 1200 BC (Gardiner, 1911, pp. 35-39, 84-86; cf. Caminos, 1954, 132, 134). [7] Metaphorical references to deafness were not uncommon in various Egyptian periods, e.g. "he that can hear is deaf", or "plays the deaf man" i.e. chooses not to hear (Erman, 1927, pp. 122, 218; see also 124, 130, 232, 235).

The theologian Augustine (354-430) was born in Roman North Africa at the small Numidian town of Tagaste (now known as Souk Ahras, in the north-east corner of Algeria). He studied at Carthage and spent some years in Italy before returning to Tagaste in 388, with his son Adeodatus aged 16. There he wrote De Magistro (usually translated "The Teacher"), in the form of a dialogue between himself and Adeodatus. Much of the text discusses words used as silent thoughts, as sounds, and as signs of meaning. Augustine enquired:

Have you never noticed how men converse, as it were, [quasi sermocinentur] with deaf people by gestures and how the deaf themselves in turn use gestures to ask and answer questions, to teach and make known either all their wishes or, at least, a good many of them? [indicent aut omnia, quae volunt, aut certe plurima] When this is done, visual qualities are not the only ones indicated without the use of words, but also sound, taste, and other such qualities. And there are actors in theatres who often unfold and act out whole stories by dancing, without the use of words. (Augustine, trans. Russell 1968, p. 13; Latin phrases inserted from Augustine, ed. Weigel, 1961, ch. 5, p. 9)

This is probably the earliest surviving statement from African antiquity that clearly bears witness to the reality and depth of signed communication between deaf people and between hearing and deaf people. There is indeed some caution in the description, i.e. Augustine does not straightforwardly use "sermocinentur" ("converse with"), but "quasi sermocinentur" ("converse, as it were, with"). He makes the proviso that "indicent aut omnia, quae volunt, aut certe plurima" -- either all that they wish to say, or at any rate much of it. Yet these are the careful qualifications of precise academic discourse. In common experience, hearing people using speech can seldom feel that they really communicate "all that they wish to say", so why should deaf people be measured with a higher standard? Augustine reinforced the active communication verbs - vel quaerant vel respondeant vel doceant vel indicent - to leave no doubt of what he thought deaf people could achieve with their powerful language. In De quantitate animae, written a little earlier at Rome, he had already used an argument about people who "by nods and gesture express the thoughts they have to communicate" (nutibus membrorumque motu cogitationes suas sibimet expromendas signarent), refering to a young deaf man of Milan and to a deaf family of six or more people whom he knew. He also pointed out that if deaf parents had a hearing son, he would communicate with them using the signs he had learnt from them (ut parentes ei dabant, ita gestu signa redditurum) (Augustine, trans. McMahon, 1947, pp. 92-93; Augustine, ed. Hörmann, 1986, XVIII.31., pp. 168-69). [8]


In legendary time, Credo Mutwa has woven folk material from Southern Bantu peoples in Indaba my Children: the mute woman Luojoyo communicated by sign with her single hand (Mutwa, 1998, pp. 232-39, 261, 313); the 'deaf mute' Muwende Lutanana and others also signed (pp. 414-15, 422, 574 76), a practice probably dating back many centuries. Similarly venerable is the Ethiopian folk-story, about "a deaf judge and two deaf persons" (Mittwoch, 1942). The two deaf people address one another but fail to receive the intended message. They quarrel, then go to a judge whose hearing is also impaired. He further confounds the issue, as in similar stories across the world. Obviously, actions based on mishearing and misunderstanding can lead to mayhem. Deaf people might reasonably object that similar mayhem occurs (perhaps much more frequently) among people who hear clearly but who fail to pay attention to what others say. The prejudicial agenda of the 'Three Deaf Men' type of story is the notion that they are stupid, underpinned also by those African cultures in which the nickname given to many deaf people implies stupidity, equivalent to the English 'dummy' and 'dumb' (Adoyo, 2004; Kiyaga & Moores, 2003; Milandou, 1981; Naniwe, 1994; Oteng, 1988).

Some Saharan folk tales from Mali, involving a deaf wife, seem to emphasise the need for patience and understanding (Calame-Griaule, 1987, pp. 452-54, 459, 468), rather than assuming stupidity. While African folklore often links disability or deafness with negative or pejorative beliefs (Odebiyi & Togonu-Bickersteth, 1987; Devlieger, 1994; Sarr, 1981), the physician and ethnographer Hugh Stannus (1910, pp. 299-300) noted a more neutral or positive belief in Nyasaland. The mzimu, which is "a good spirit and does no harm", leaves a dying person's body and goes upward (heavenward, to Mlungu). "The only people to visit Mlungu and come back are occasionally children who die, for a short time their mzimu goes to Mlungu and returns; they live again, but are deaf-mutes." [9]

Deafness and sign seem poorly represented in African proverbs, compared with blindness and physical disabilities. In a compilation from several sub-Saharan countries, 120 proverbs concern body parts, diseases or imperfections, but only two refer to ears and hearing, and two to the 'dumb man'. Eyes and blind men appear in twenty-two, and 'the lame' maimed, dwarf, hunchback and leprous (sic) have eighteen (Whitting, 1940, pp. 46-47, 60-65, 170-71). Similar findings are reflected in other African proverb compilations. A large collection from Algeria (Ben Cheneb, 1905) has far fewer on blind people, but includes (vol. I: 118) "La mère du muet connaît la langue des muets". This translation follows the Arabic shown, but may differ significantly from another version of this widespread proverb: "The mother of the mute understands what he says" (Lunde & Wintle, 1984, p. 94). The latter might mean merely that the mother knows the mute person well enough to interpret his poorly articulated speech. The former proverb could suggest that the mother knows the SL common among the local (deaf-) mute people; or, more plausibly, uses 'home sign' with her deaf son.

People who were deaf and/or mute were perhaps seldom seen as having other noteworthy characteristics, or were so few in local communities that characteristics failed to become proverbial. Something like 'The deaf child listens with four eyes' could be a proverb, according to observations in urban schools and families in many cultures; but such a proverb would be surprising in African cultures, where children are usually trained not to gaze directly into an adult's face. An 'action equivalent' existed in Worcester, Cape Province, where the deaf school was a major feature of the town: "if anyone in town lost anything, a handbag or trinket, they came to the deaf school, and asked if the deaf children could find it; and if it was in the town the deaf children DID find it, as they roamed about after school" (Barnes, 1929, p. 23). Where deaf children were unremarkable, because locally numerous, they could thus acquire some other noteworthy characteristic. In this case it was a useful one, presumably deriving from the deaf children's personal motivation to pay close visual attention to their environment.

Chenjerai Hove (1996) offers some literary 'evidence' from Zimbabwe in a tale of Africa's troubles and women's oppression. The action moves between an imagined and sorrowful life in the 1850s when Miriro was born 'deaf and dumb' in a village, and scenes from the 1950s to 1980s when her (silent) voice spoke to a later generation about their disregard for tradition. Hove has the deaf baby Miriro "still silent after the midwife pinched it" (p. 10) and continuing in complete silence, with less credibility. (But this is a novel! Who cares if deaf babies usually cry?) Recently a fictional deaf builder, Mario Salvati, has the central role in another allegorical novel of South African history (Van Heerden, 2002). The Kenyan author James Ngugi (Ngugi wa Thiong'o) wrote into A Grain of Wheat (1971, pp. 6-7) an admirable young deaf labourer, Gitogo, "handsome, strongly built", popular with other young men, who cared for his elderly mother, and "spoke with his hands". During a government raid on Gitogo's village, he ran to protect his mother. A soldier shouted "Stop!". Gitogo ran on and was shot. Apparently that character was based on Ngugi's own deaf step-brother Gitogo, shot by government troops in 1954 or 1955. [10] The lengthier battles of an intelligent Ghanaian woman, deafened in early adulthood, are depicted in a largely autobiographical novelette by Frances Serwaa Oteng (1997), set amidst the petty politics of a boarding school for deaf children.


Gestural communication was noticed between coastal West Africans and early European traders having no common language, e.g. in William Towerson's voyage to Guinea, 1555-1556 (Blake, trans. 1942, II: 368-373), and in many other countries where 'silent trade' took place. Grierson (1903, pp. 43-62) documented reports of such practices also in Angola, the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya, Mozambique, Senegal, Sierra Leone and possibly Somalia. Yet deaf people did not figure in these accounts, and De Moraes Farias (1974) has expressed some scepticism about 'silent trade' reports. Rajend Mesthrie (1998) provides retrospective analysis of the kind of linguistic bricolage in which missionaries and their 'native assistants' engaged in South Africa in the early 19th century, and finds that they had no need of sign language.

The need for two or more people to communicate for business, having no common language, could occur on several levels, and certainly could involve deaf people with hearing people. Leonard Flemming (1922) wrote of setting up a new farm in South Africa and recalled that, "In the meantime I had found a man to take on the building of my house. He was quite a good builder, but he could only speak Dutch, which I had not then learnt, and he was deaf." (During two years of construction work, with many detailed technical items to discuss and no common language, these two men somehow avoided killing each other). In a simpler situation, Fr. Adolphe Lechaptois ("Mponda Mission Diary", trans. 1974, p. 696) at a village of Nyasaland (Malawi) in 1890, had less trouble: "There was another craftsman close by, a deaf mute, who was making a magnificent fishing net ... The mesh was beautifully even and neatly tied." Words were needed less than visual acuity: "As he was working fast it was difficult to see how the knot was tied, but it looked deceptively simple."

An early, one day ruler at Kano, Nigeria, in 1452, was "Dakauta. He was dumb." (In such reports, the person given in translation as 'dumb' can often be assumed to have been deaf). People thought that if he became ruler (Sarki), he would gain the power of speech; but as "after one night he did not speak, they turned him out again" (Palmer, 1967, p. 110). Constanze Schmaling (2000, p. 15), in her detailed description and analysis of Hausa SL, notes that various modern disability groups in Kano State have their own Sarki, some with a long history; [11] but the formal post of "Sarkin Bebaye (leader of the Deaf)" was created only in the late 1980s, for a deaf man, Alhaji Garba Bebe, who seems to have campaigned for such an office to exist.

Richard Burton, visiting Dahomey in the 1860s, noted that entertainers often pretended to be "deaf and dumb - a favourite trick here" (Burton, 1966, p. 130). Major Tremearne (1913) recorded a folk tale from the Hausas of Northern Nigeria, in which someone pretending to be "deaf and dumb" tried to cheat another man out of his property. "The King showed his hand to the Deaf Mute in the manner that one questions a Deaf Mute [i.e. by the sign language], and the Man replied (on his hands) that the property was his." A courtier then tricked the pretended deaf-and-dumb man into speaking (p. 49). Another version of the story has the cheat making "inarticulate noises, as a dumb man would, such as no one could understand". The cheated man has a friend who claims to "understand deaf-and-dumb talk", and this friend tricks the cheat into betraying that he can both hear and speak ("Hausa Tales and Traditions", 1969, pp. 432-33).

In 1891 Mary French-Sheldon (1972, pp. 110-11), travelling in what is now north-west Tanzania, noticed local people's facility in communicating by iconic gestures, but remarked disdainfully that, "Many of their antics in their sign language are not only grotesque, but childish." A more perceptive traveller in South Africa described the pleasure of seeing and understanding 'home sign' by the good-humoured deaf craftsman Gildenhuis, who flourished in the 1790s and 1800s. Gildenhuis was "uncommonly clever in handicraft employments, and was exceedingly useful to the inhabitants of the country, in making gun-locks, tools for all kinds of work, and in general in all the finer kinds of smith's work", as well as artistic carvings and engravings (Lichtenstein, 1812, I: 262-63). Lichtenstein described some of Gildenhuis's wittily executed gestures, which are easily recognisable.

A possible early glimpse of deaf people occurs in a description of the royal procession in the Kingdom of Benin. Based on travellers' reports, Olfert Dapper (1676, p. 129) recorded that "insgelijks veel dwergen en doven, daer in hy zijn pleizier neemt, te voorschijn komen" (p. 129), i.e. a good many dwarfs and deaf people were in the procession, serving as entertainers. A later French edition had "bon nombre de Nains & de sourds qui servent de divertissement" (Dapper, 1686, p. 311). Yet this edition has an illustration of the Royal Cavalcade, with sections labelled and designations listed in a key. In the foreground, closest to the King, three dwarfs appear with some people in peculiar poses, labelled "H". The key gives "H" as "Fous et Nains" (fools and dwarfs), repeated in Flemish as "Gekken en Dwergen". [12] Other evidence confirms the custom of having dwarfs at African courts; but deaf people are less certain.

That a language existed in the Kingdom of Benin by which deaf and hearing people might communicate, with reasonable certainty, was a matter of importance to a British 'punitive expedition' urgently seeking to know the whereabouts of Benin City in February 1897. In his diary, Surgeon Felix Roth (appendix, in N.L. Roth, 1903/1968) noted on February 7th that "all the information we can get is from a dumb man and a slave boy, who has only been there once" (p. viii). After capturing the city nearly two weeks later, Roth reflected that between these two dubious guides, "there was generally a discussion as to which was the direct and shortest road to the city. We always took our chance, and relied mostly on the man, and luckily hit off the right road the whole way" (p. x).


Court service provided a reason to trade deaf servants to Istanbul from parts of northern Nigeria, Chad and Sudan, for the centuries-old custom of deaf attendants serving the Ottoman Sultans, who used a well developed SL with them (Miles, 2000a). The physician and traveller Gustav Nachtigal made occasional notes in the 1870s on deaf people during five years of travel and residence in Saharan countries. At Tejerri (Tajarhi, Libya) he hired a camel from "Gedde, the burgomaster's deaf and dumb [taubstumme] son-in-law, who was perpetually drunk" (Nachtigal, trans. 1971-1987, II: 40-41). Then in 1872 he learnt that the leading men of Bornu had given gifts, including "ordinary slaves, eunuchs, deaf-mutes and dwarfs", to an emissary of the Ottoman Sultan (IV: 4). At Kuka (capital of Bornu), west of Lake Chad, he remarked that "deaf and dumb slave girls" were sold for high prices to serve the wives of businessmen in some Islamic countries (II: 218). Travelling to Darfur (Western Sudan) in 1874, he noticed a raggedly dressed Arab with two slaves, a deaf Dinka and a small girl (IV: 243).

The experienced French colonial administrator and scholar Henri Gaden (1907, p. 444) noted the long reign (1874-1898) of Sultan Yusuf at Ouadai (now in Chad), who "sent eunuchs to Constantinople almost yearly. Once, when the Ottoman Sultan Abd el-Hamid asked him particularly for deaf-mutes, he searched his kingdom and sent all whom he could find." The Ottoman Sultan's custom of underlining his superiority and authority, by maintaining silence and distance from 'ordinary' humans, has no doubt been used by rulers in many nations throughout history. An example of an Abyssinian prince using this technique was recorded in the 1840s by the British traveller Mansfield Parkyns (1854, I: 328). "At a feast Oubi seldom speaks, making known his wishes to his 'asalafies' by signs. For example, many of his principal officers (even his own sons) remain standing against the wall; custom and fear, more than a sense of respect for their master, forbidding them to be seated in his presence. Oubi then, by a sign with his finger, directs the 'asalafy' to give bread to such a one, wine to another, &c."

In an embassy to Sahala Selassie, King of Shawa in Southern Abyssinia [Ethiopia] in 1841, Cornwallis Harris (1844, II: 241, 246-47) witnessed a special distribution of royal alms to a vast throng of diseased and disabled people, including "the old, the halt and the lame, the deaf, the noseless, and the dumb, the living dead in every shape and form". As they poured into the palace environs from near and far, there were bureaucrats keeping "an annual muster-roll" of beneficiaries: "all who were ascertained to have been participants in the distribution of the preceding year were unceremoniously ejected...", so as to reduce the toll on the royal treasury. Harris noted that the mendicants who got past this check "were next classed in squads according to their diseases", and so received their dole. It is not a very attractive scene -- yet in terms of locating and naming deaf people, this may have been one of the earliest African occasions when substantial numbers of deaf people were present, and probably had their name and village written down. Some kind of verification was presumably required, otherwise some able-bodied and hearing people would certainly have disguised themselves as poor disabled or deaf, an age-old custom in the region (Boswell, 1976, I: 36-47, 84-85, 110; Pankhurst, 1990, p. 89). Grouping the mendicants by ailment may have had the aim that they should be self-policing. The genuinely deaf people, even if gathered from a wide region and not all knowing one another, probably could have detected any fraud while using SL amongst themselves - unless the fraud had learnt to sign very competently.

Some rulers listed deaf people so as to sell or gift them abroad, while others wished to earn merit by giving them a charitable dole. The government of the Cape Colony listed and counted "Deaf and Dumb" people in 1875 without either motivation -- it had merely become the European custom to identify disabled people within the Census net. The 1904 Census report had several pages of tabulated results on "Deaf and Dumb", with brief discussion ("Results of a Census", 1905, pp. clvi - clix), and compared that data, and the data for "sickness and infirmities", against similar results from the 1875 and 1891 Censuses (pp. cxlvii - clxxiii). The government thus learnt of the presence of 256 "Deaf and Dumb" people in 1875, and of 1,016 "Deaf and Dumb, or Dumb" in 1904, tabulating them by reported racial group, i.e. "European, Malay, Hottentot, Fingo, Kafir & Bechuana, Mixed & Other". The report showed official irritation with "One mistake largely made..." by reporters, which was to report some "Deaf" people, when the official demand had been for "Deaf and Dumb" and "Dumb" (para. 474, p. cxlvii). Somehow there was no official interest in 995 people who were thus reported only as "Deaf" -- and this was 80 years before any deaf/Deaf distinction was constructed, and before some Deaf people would assert that their only 'disability' lay in hearing people's failure to learn to Sign. The Cape official mind specifically rejected data reported on 995 people: "...these 995 'Deaf' have not been included in the 1,016 'Deaf and Dumb' and 'Dumb' here reported on."[!]


The Rev. James Sibree (1884), inspired by Garrick Mallery's studies of American Indian sign and gesture, prepared brief descriptive notes on sign, gesture and symbolic acts among the people of Central Madagascar, and extracted further material from his colleagues, for presentation at the Anthropological Institute, London. In reported discussion after Sibree's paper, Mr Hyde Clarke gave more detail of the sign language used in the Ottoman Seraglio, which he had witnessed (Sibree, 1884, pp. 182-83). Both Sibree and Hyde Clarke were interested in tracing back their observations of gesture language in the 1880s to earlier sources, as far back as the historical texts with which they were familiar, i.e. from ancient Rome and Palestine.

Other anthropological studies of African signs and symbols doubtless appeared during the colonial period, but with little or no reference to deaf people. However, Major Tremearne (1913, pp. 54-57) described 30 familiar signs or gestures used among Hausas, as well as the traditional Bori actors' depictions of deafness (Tremearne, pp. 536, 538; see also Onwuejeogwu, 1969, p. 300; Harris, 1932). More recently, Céline Baduel Mathon (1971) made a detailed classification of gestural communication in West African countries from documentation of the previous two centuries, yet described no formal SL used by deaf people. Concurrently, Chet Creider (1977) was making what he believed to be the earliest systematic observations of gestural communication in East Africa, during 1970-1972, among four tribal groups, also apparently without reference to deaf people.

The first substantial historical group of African deaf people known to have used a formal SL seems to have been at the village of Adamorobe, in Ghana. Okyere & Addo (1994) give the curiously precise date of 1733 for the start of "co-existence" of deaf and hearing people at Adamorobe, citing no evidence. Nancy Frishberg (1987) states that the chief and elders "indicate that Adamorobe may have been settled for 200 years. Deaf people have been there for as long as anyone remembers." Frishberg remarks that Adamorobe SL is thus "a traditional deaf sign language, possibly with as long a history as French Sign language or ASL." Possible corroboration of "as long as anyone remembers" (i.e. in the 70-120 years range, if adults report as their own memory some things they heard from their parents or grandparents) appears in comments from a surgeon who made several study visits to Adamorobe in 1963-64. A formal research project on Adamorobe SL was reported on by Osei-Sekyereh (1971). David and colleagues traced the inheritance of deafness in Adamorobe family trees: "in one or two we could see how a normal family became affected by one disastrous, old great grandmother" (David, 1972). David, whose own hearing was impaired, noted that, "The deaf adults had a remarkable way of communicating by clicks and mouthing and hand signs which would be well worth filming." Frishberg later filmed some Adamorobe SL, and systematic description is under way by Victoria Nyst, who has also begun comparative work on several African SLs (Nyst & Baker, 2003).

Over 20 African SLs appear in a recent linguistic encyclopaedia (Grimes, 2003), and the field seems likely to grow steadily in complexity. While the linguistic research momentum seems to have been kept up largely by expatriates and by Europeans resident in Africa, there have been useful contributions by black Africans on the practical outcomes and applications, as for example in the evidence-based critique by Adoyo (2004, based on his doctoral studies, 2002) of a widely endorsed educational approach.


Brief notes on the informal education of some deaf African boys appear in mid 19th century mission records in Liberia, by the Rev. Colden Hoffman and colleagues. Harriett Brittan (1969), who worked with Hoffman at Cape Palmas, gave a lively description of caring for orphans and disabled adults or children between 1857 and 1859. One child named Wah was deaf, and his deaf brother had been sent to America for education. Wah was inclined to wander, but "Everybody knows him and is kind to him ... He is such an interesting little fellow so bright and sharp, and so imitative. He has learned the alphabet on his fingers, and one can readily make him understand what one wants." (Brittan, pp. 45, 91-92). Communication developed between Wah and a hearing boy, Thomas, "talking to one another by signs, occasionally appealing to me to settle their little differences" (Brittan, p. 115). In October 1859, Hoffman visited London with a deaf boy, "baptized by the name of Harvey Peet, the son of a native chief, and who was placed under the care of Miss Elwin, in the Deaf and Dumb Institution, Bath" (Fox, 1868, p. 289). Harvey stayed there about three years and Hoffman (1863) noted that the lad "understands basket-making", and that he wished to "gain some knowledge of it myself". Hoffman hoped to take Harvey back to Liberia, where he could usefully teach blind people to weave baskets. Hoffman "had also projected an Institute for Deaf mutes" (Fox, 1868, p. 361), to join the work already begun with blind people; but he died in 1865 before that plan bore fruit.

Some 50 years later, the British missionary David Forbes (1917) reported work with blind girls at Rumasha, Nigeria, adding that, "The deaf and dumb are not forgotten, and two boys are receiving instruction in the signs of the deaf and dumb language. Every morning a short lesson is given to all the boys to enable them to communicate with the two mute lads." [13] This unusual example of 'inclusion' suggests that a recognised SL existed and was taught to deaf and hearing alike, 40 years before 'official' education for deaf children began in Nigeria. It is probably one of the earliest descriptions of deaf children being included in a thoughtful way in an ordinary school in Africa, and of hearing children being taught sign for the same purpose. Neither Hoffman, nor Brittan, nor Forbes set out to teach deaf children. Such children came into their hands and they made efforts to educate them, as did some of their counterparts in many countries.

By no means all missionary teachers found time for deaf children. On Likoma Island in Lake Nyasa, M.B. Bulley (1926) found two deaf girls, Siile and Mercy, aged about 10 and 8 years. Siile ("let her be") was at school, acting as a monitress for the younger children, but not herself making any progress in her education, and Bulley could not find anything for her. Mercy earned a rebuke when her inability to hear was misunderstood by a missionary teacher as wilful disobedience. After further enquiry, an older cousin was enlisted to teach her some lip-reading, which proceeded for a while. On the other hand, some missionaries were keen ethnographic observers, as well as having a professional interest in communication.

Acquisition of a deaf child by foreigners for care and education (an act that would later generate some questioning and unease) had a further early documented example from Mrs Wareham (1908) with photograph of the deaf African girl, Mukondo, found at Garanganze Mission Station, Mambadina (Northern Rhodesia) through which she passed. "Having been associated with children similarly afflicted", Mrs Wareham persuaded the girl's parents to part with her, which they did allegedly without much interest since little Mukondo was actually in her grandmother's care. [14] These mission station stories contrast with the dispassionate account by Karen Blixen (1954, pp. 264-66) in her chapter "Karomenya" about a "deaf and dumb" boy, nine years old, who lived on her farm near Nairobi in the 1920s. Karomenya was strong, a skilled stone-thrower and an eager fighter with the other children. Blixen gave him some opportunities to make himself useful in kitchen or house, but the boy was hardly adaptable to such tasks, and the Danish lady was willing to let him be himself - though she foresaw that he would have a hard time when he grew to be a young man.

Formal deaf education by missionaries in South Africa began in the 1860s. The Dominican Sisters (1944) could review an 80 year period since establishment of their first schools at Cape Town, including one for deaf children. [15] The first six nuns came to South Africa from the Dominican convent at Cabra, Ireland, which had a deaf girls school in its grounds, run by the sisters. These women sailed past the Liberian coast in August 1863, unaware that Hoffman was already busy with a few deaf boys there. Another school for deaf (and for blind) children opened at Worcester, eighty miles from Cape Town, in 1881, under B.J.G. De la Bat (1858 1942), whose brother Piet was deaf. The first deaf pupil, on 15 June 1881, is named as Lenie du Toit, by Biesenbach (1972). This became much the strongest school during the next fifty years. The first inspector to visit was surprised that, "De la Bat's pupils mastered the art of reading more quickly than did normal children..." (Biesenbach, 1972). Several formal schools opened in South Africa before 1900, and only coastal North Africa had 19th century counterparts. Volta Bureau records (1896; 1900, 1901) noted that "Schools are also reported to exist in Algiers and Syonfieh, Egypt", and listed three teachers and 37 pupils at Algiers in 1900, 2 teachers and 6 pupils in Egypt in 1901. A Cairo source had a school for "Blind and Dumb" [= Deaf] opening in 1874 and reporting annual data for some years (Heyworth-Dunne, 1968, p. 390). [16]

Occasionally a European missionary enjoyed the kindness of lay people because of his own growing deafness. Father Godfrey Callaway, an Anglican priest at St Cuthbert's mission, Tsolo, Kaffraria, in the 1920s and 1930s, left copious writing on the everyday lives of Africans. His appreciation of disabled people's qualities shines through the 1927 paper "The Cracked Bell" (Callaway, 1945, 195-99) as, from his sick bed, he observes the "lame master cobbler Michael and his hunchback apprentice Johnson" being joined by "blind Bango" for a gossip. Callaway's hearing impairment periodically worsened, so in February 1937 he could write, "I just look on, and am a great nuisance. My deafness cuts me off almost entirely from social life" (Callaway, 1945, p. 323). Again, in October 1941, "the poor Brethren had to write their remarks on slips of paper. My African attendants began to display remarkable gifts of dramatic action." His attendant David was "determined that deafness shall be no hindrance to mutual understanding, and he acts his words splendidly" (Callaway, pp. 294-95). Callaway was followed after several decades by a Catholic priest, Fr. Cyril Axelrod, born deaf in 1942, with a significant visual impairment. Axelrod studied at Gallaudet in the mid 1960s, and worked with Black deaf people in Soweto in the 1970s and 1980s (Redemptorists, no date).


An impressive account by Florence Blaxall (1948) tells of the deaf blind Zulu lad, Radcliffe Bhekinkosi Dhladhla, up to the age of 21. Radcliffe lost his hearing and sight after a high fever in infancy, which also left him physically disabled. His mother Rhoda took him from the village to Durban, where hospital treatment restored Radcliffe's mobility. He was returned to Rhoda with the advice that his mind was unimpaired, and he should be encouraged to do and learn everything possible. Rhoda followed this counsel until Radcliffe was 11, then tried to get him into a special school, but none felt competent to take him. Florence Blaxall took charge of the lad around 1937, worked on his education and later wrote the story in detail, without sentimentality. They learnt the "Tadoma" teaching method when its originators, Inis Hall, Tad Chapman and Mrs Chapman, visited South Africa. Radcliffe then made better progress and revealed more of his character, individuality and voice. In 1938 Florence and Arthur Blaxall went with Radcliffe to start Ezenzeleni, a new work for adult blind people near Johannesburg. Later two other deaf blind young men, Franz and Johannes, joined Radcliffe for their education. [17]

Another mother's practical viewpoint on teaching a deaf child at home appears in letters written by Miriam Boyd to the Volta Bureau, 1931 32, and later published (Boyd, 1933). Her daughter Mavis, aged 9, deaf since birth, had been taught by Mrs Boyd along with her younger children, on a farm in rural South Africa. This is a reminder that specialised institutions covered only a tiny part of the task of raising and teaching deaf children, which mostly took place at home without external help. Mrs Boyd was determined enough to seek advice by writing, and noted that she had had "helpful suggestions from the Principals of Deaf Schools out here. The Rev. Blaxall has been especially good..."

Blaxall seems to have been both a local and national resource for deaf people in South Africa over many years. His book names various deaf men, though its main purpose was to explain how he himself got a criminal record for resisting apartheid. He mentioned Ben Hurwitz, "a champion chess player", who was deaf and then had suddenly gone blind; also Moses, Simon, Piet and other deaf men or boys, lost between cities, illiterate, without any papers, arrested for various offences, unable to give any account of themselves, for whom Blaxall would get called in to act as friend and advocate at police stations. "In due course I find myself confronted by a grimy man in dishevelled clothes. I lift an eye-brow and smile, at the same time touching my ears with an enquiring look -- a faint glimmer springs into his eyes as I go on with natural signs of sleeping, growing up, and a wide gesture of both hands with an open expression of surprise. Where do you come from? Where did you grow up? -- he surely recognises the signs ... I may have to bring in an educated deaf-mute who is skilled at handling such pathetic cases by natural signing which I can follow but not emulate." (Blaxall, 1965, 26, 56-58). [18]

The strangest, and paradoxically the most natural, surrogate parents communicating with their child by an elaborate language of body signals must have been a small group of gazelles of the Western Sahara, who were observed in 1961 and 1963 by the Basque artist and traveller Jean-Claude Auger (writing as Armen). Among the gazelles was a human boy aged perhaps 10 years (in 1961), probably adopted by the gazelle group in his infancy. He was certainly far from deaf, but practically mute in spoken human language. After making the group accustomed to his presence, and observing them closely, Auger rather suddenly realised that they were constantly inter-communicating as a group, with a well-organised system using various parts of the body - limbs, skin, tails, hair - in which the boy also took part. Auger stayed long enough to begin to decipher some of this language (Armen, 1974, pp. 61-67, 83-87).


Takla Haymanot (c. 1215 - c. 1313) was a major religious figure both in Ethiopian Christianity and in the national history, and various legends recount his expulsion of devils and healing people with diseases and disabilities. During a visit to the high mountain of Wifat, in Shoa, needy people were brought to him and a 16th century chronicler carefully enumerated the "twelve dumb, thirteen paralysed, seven with epilepsy, ten blind" whom he exorcised (trans. Budge, 1906, vol. I: 99). Deaf people may also have received the attentions of Abbott Philemon in the second half of the 14th century, but the person whose cure is remembered by the Ethiopian Church was "un muet", who went to the saint's tomb. After he had knocked at Philemon's sepulchre (or on the tomb - "il eut frappé à son sépulture") he found himself able to speak - the question of hearing is not mentioned; nor is there any expulsion of evil spirits in this account or the subsequent healing of a paralysed person (Allotte de la Fuye, 1958, p. 58). As within any hagiography, these narratives might contain observations of historical events, or perhaps should be understood in an allegorical light. From a 'Deaf culture' standpoint they would appear to reinforce a negative view of deafness as a deficit to be remedied; yet this is not necessarily how they would be perceived by all deaf Ethiopians. Without being able to verify any detail, the stories strongly suggest that deaf (and 'dumb') people were known and located, in Ethiopia of the 13th and 14th centuries. If as many as a dozen were known in one locality, they may have met often enough to develop signed communication beyond the basic gestural level used in the neighbourhood.

In the first half of the 20th century, some deaf people appeared in the religious record as active participants rather than passive recipients. An Ethiopian named Bayena, from Marako, who had been deafened as a youth, found his historical niche in May 1937 when a hard-bitten missionary (Duff, 1980, p. 360) noted in his diary the deep impression made by the religious testimony of Bayena, whose entire possessions consisted of a cloth belonging to his recently killed brother, and whose earthly prospects seemed extremely poor. [19] A visitor to the work of the Sudan United Mission among the Burum people near Bukuru, Nigeria, was also pleased by the progress of a deaf lad: "One of the believers at Du is deaf and dumb, and yet the others have been able to teach him, and he is one of the keenest... During a recent visit I attended the school. This boy was writing beautifully on a slate. The sentence was 'Jesus is our King'." ("Du Report", 1925) Another deaf lad, Farai, distinguished himself similarly when the Governor of Southern Rhodesia visited his school at Morgenster in 1950. Farai presented a carefully written letter, informing His Excellency "how pleased he was with him, that he had a good heart, and that Jesus died for him" (Van der Merwe, 1953, p. 35). Perhaps the governor did not often meet with such directly and kindly expressed solicitude for his spiritual welfare. He sent a well-considered reply in his own handwriting.


South Africa

Many reports have accumulated on formal services in South Africa provided for deaf people, but early published reports on activities by deaf people are scanty. Some exist, mostly of deaf Europeans, e.g. in Cape Town, where F.G. Barnes (1929) visited "a very lively Deaf club, organised only about six years ago by Mr Blaxall ... The deaf were generally a well-to-do, self respecting group, taking a prominent part in the management of their organisation, and with a broad view of their duties and responsibilities to their own class" (p. 18). Barnes, an experienced professional touring deaf services, admired the vocational training he saw at the Worcester institution. Nowhere in Britain, he thought, "could we attempt such work as full suites of furniture of high grade as I saw being built in the workshop at Worcester by deaf lads of nineteen and twenty" (p. 26).

The disabled activist Murrogh Nesbitt (1958, pp. 23-29) recorded an account of Clifford B., a South African deafened during naval service, who went through various military hospitals and left several jobs with depression. In the late 1940s he spent five months helping Nesbitt construct the self-rehabilitation camp "Avalon", in the Tulbagh valley. There, according to his own report, Clifford gained the confidence to return to a city job. Another man who had "laboured throughout his life under a severe disability: poor hearing" (Gann, 1985) arising from severe otitis media in childhood, went on to a more elevated 'city job', as Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia and then of the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland, from 1933 to 1956. This was Sir Godfrey Huggins (later Lord Malvern), whose early ear problems and prolonged hospitalisation damaged his education but did not quite prevent him becoming a surgeon, and later an astute politician (Gann & Gelfand, 1964).

There are comparatively few voices of deaf writers in Southern Africa, even in the 20th century, and among them perhaps a majority wrote (like Godfrey Callaway) mostly of other things and were reticent about their deafness. One who expressed his thoughts and feelings as a deaf person was the poet, editor and activist David Wright (1920-1994), born hearing normally in Johannesburg, becoming profoundly deaf at seven. His story, Deafness. An autobiography (Wright, 1993), is widely used to give hearing people a clearer idea of an experience they might not easily imagine. As he left Africa at 13 to live in England, his work tells little about being deaf specifically in Africa. Thirty pages recount his childhood illness, the slow realisation that he had lost his hearing, parental worries, and private tuition to extend his linguistic skills (Wright, 1993, pp. 26-51). Wright mentions another deaf person, Michael Sutton, with whom he was at school in England, whom he considered (in 1989) "the most famous and sought-after architect in South Africa", and a phenomenal lip-reader (Wright, pp. xvi, 131).

Francophone, Saharan and Mediterranean Africa

Patterns of early evidence for deaf people in Francophone, Saharan and Mediterranean Africa have some apparent differences, and there is certainly much more in Arabic sources within Africa than has yet been brought to light. Nachtigal's observations above suggest that some 19th century Saharan deaf people were known locally, their status depending largely on that of their families. They were sometimes in demand specifically for their deafness. Those of powerless background might be collected and sold into slavery, servanthood or marriage. The Turkish and Arab destinations, arduous and dangerous though they were, probably gave some deaf Africans a higher standard of living than in their home village, and sometimes also participation in a deaf signing community. The region has major coastal cities of great antiquity, with populations large enough to make it likely that deaf men knew one another in informal groups, and sometimes in particular trades (e.g. tailoring) or cottage industries, and maintained SLs of mutual intelligibility at a basic level across large areas. [20]

Most of the region was earlier under Arab or Turkish rule for many centuries, so Islamic law and custom penetrated deep into the interior, though sometimes in mutated form. From the 9th century CE, Muslims in the Middle East had laws recognising the well-known signs of deaf individuals as valid in some legally important situations, such as marriage and commercial contracts. [21] It is not surprising that the earliest named deaf person in the present study should appear casually in two residential property sale contracts drawn up at village Tutun in the Fayyum province of Egypt in 962 and 963 CE. The southern boundary of the houses was in each case described as "the residence of the heirs of Munah the Deaf" [Arabic: al-Asamm] (Frantz-Murphy, 1981). Being thus described might suggest that Munah had been known as a deaf person for a significant part of his life. The sole information given about him, i.e. that he had "heirs" living in property sufficiently well established as to delineate a boundary in a written legal contract, suggests a man of some significance in the local community. The data should not be pressed too far, yet it seems legitimate for Deaf people in the African Middle East to take pleasure in the record of this Egyptian deaf man's name, place, property, heirs and presumable period of life in the first half of the 10th century.

Interest in signs and gestures has been sustained among Muslim scholars not only by the Qur'anic incident (Sura 19, 1-11) where Zakariya, temporarily mute, "told them by signs / To celebrate Allah's praises" ("Holy Qur'an", revised trans., Ali, 1989, p. 746; cf. the parallel biblical story in Luke's gospel, chapter 1, verses 5-23, 57-66), but also by accounts of hand signs or gestures made by the prophet Muhammad in various situations. For example, Muhammad was in the mosque on one occasion when "a man whose head and beard were dishevelled entered, and God's messenger pointed his hand at him as though he were ordering him to arrange his hair and his beard", so that the man retired and came back with a more orderly appearance (Baghawi, trans. Robson, reprint 1994, II: 938). Some further symbolic finger or hand signals by the prophet are described a little more closely (Baghawi, I: 594, 622, 628; II: 856, 913-14, 959-60, 1031-32, 1032, 1035, 1108, 1125, 1336. See also "Ishara", 1978; Goldziher, 1886, and digest in Bousquet, 1961, 269-72).

Nachtigal's interest in deaf people, mentioned above, may have been stimulated by Abd el-Ati, "a wandering scholar" whom he "had for some time as a companion" from 1871. This man was good-natured and "not only poor, but also half-blind and hard of hearing" [halb-blind und schwerhörig]. He lived by teaching children, writing letters for those who needed a scribe, and chanting the prayers (Nachtigal, II: 344-46). This broad social communicativeness of Abd el-Ati, whose impairments, in another man, might have led to a secluded and depressed existence, would surely have interested some Maghrebian writers in the 1970s and 1980s who had plenty to say but struggled to communicate across the barrier of the blank page. Eric Sellin (1988) depicts the Moroccan writer Abdelkebir Khatibi (born 1938) returning "time and time again to the theme of the orally and aurally handicapped and relat[ing] their handicaps to the creative process, while Nabile Farès from Algeria uses "mute Siamese twins", a "dumb interlocutor", and other symbols of communication difficulty in his books. The sight of two deaf people in a cafe at Damascus ("They were holding a dialogue in sign language. Their hands were dancing") inspired Khatibi with the "somehow compelling alternatives to conventional speech and writing".


The Senegalese writer Moussa Ly Sangaré (who later adopted the name Dono in place of Moussa [22]) has reported a more personal experience with deafness and muteness, starting c. 1953 when he was a schoolboy about 12 years old. He began asking people to repeat what they said, a habit that was noticed both at home and at school. His kindly teacher, M. Diabâté, asked young Moussa if he had difficulty hearing, which the boy of course denied, unable to perceive that the problem might lie within his own capacities. One day, however, during a dictation exercise, "le silence me fondit dessus", and Moussa saw that his teacher was still speaking and the other boys still writing, while for him there was only "une dérisoire cacophonie". Between one phrase and the next, his hearing had gone (Sangaré, 1978, pp. 120-22). A tonsil operation seemed to bring some temporary improvement, but the family could not afford any further medical expense, at risk of starvation (p. 127). Formal professional deaf education would not be available in Senegal for another 21 years (Cissé, 1981). The depth of Sangaré's hearing loss became apparent rather slowly, as the boy and young man became adept at lip-reading and patching together some meaning from odd words he could half hear (Sangaré, p. 134). Later, a physical ailment affected his mobility, and took his voice away. After much internal struggle, he determined that he would use his creative powers to speak through the printed word.

A different kind of creativity during 25 years of scientific work in North Africa earned Charles Nicolle the 1928 Nobel Prize for Medicine, the first awarded to a deaf person. Nicolle, a Frenchman by origin, lost his hearing as a medical student, became director of the Institut Pasteur de Tunis in 1903, and died in this post in 1936. Ludwik Gross (1996) met Nicolle in 1934: "In spite of his listening device, with its batteries and wires, which he was carrying, one had to almost shout to be understood." [23] A large gap separates Nicolle and the start of formal service provisions in Tunisia in 1970, when a kindergarten level school for deaf children began at Bordo in 1970, some vocational work was set up for older girls, and a deaf club opened in Tunis (Toubbeh et al, 1976).

While Nicolle was earning his Nobel medicine prize, in neighbouring Algeria a boy who would later receive the Nobel prize for literature was growing up in the company of a deaf uncle and a partly deaf mother -- and in a house bare of books (Todd, 1996, p.32). This was Albert Camus (1913-1960), whose special relationship with his uncle Etienne was finally revealed in the posthumous publication of his unfinished autobiographical novel, Le Premier Homme (Camus, 1994). The uncle, Etienne Sintès, "tout à fait sourd, lui", lived with his widowed sister Mme Camus, worked locally as a cooper, and to some extent was a surrogate father for the orphaned young Albert, a role he shared with successive schoolmasters who initiated Albert into the world of literacy, masculinity and power. In the main body of Camus literature and literary criticism, the uncle has hardly figured at all; and the partly deaf mother is a silent presence. But in Le Premier Homme, Uncle Etienne has a full chapter (pp. 95-128), a full characterisation, described through the clear eyes of the boy, the fond recollections of the man, and the sharp pen of a formidable literary craftsman. As a portrait from the 1920s of an active, rumbustious deaf man, popular among his hearing mates in Algiers, expert when hunting with gun and dog in the mountains, it is unique. It may be the best-drawn portrait of any deaf person in historical Africa, at least before 1960.


As intended, the present paper has focused mostly on a modest number of people and events before 1970, because the historical data are inaccessible to most deaf or hearing impaired people in Africa now. More recent relevant information may be more accessible, but still fairly sparse. A few notes below might broaden the picture.

Getting a hearing

For much of Africa, the long, slow progress in deaf people acquiring public space and a voice of their own is reflected in successive conferences. Probably the earliest was at Bloemfontein, organised by the Rev. Arthur Blaxall ("The Education of the Deaf in South Africa", 1928), and hearing people 'represented' deaf people. The next known conference, organised by Andrew Foster (1965) at the University of Ibadan, did have deaf people speaking for themselves; but that was 20 years too early to break the long-term tendency of hearing professionals to focus on their own activities "for the deaf". The 1972 Seminar on Deafness, Accra, Ghana, organised by the Commonwealth Society for the Deaf, included papers from ten African nations. These conveyed useful information and mutual support among educators mostly working in isolation and with seriously inadequate resources; yet only a single deaf African was named in 78 pages of proceedings: Mammie Kargbo, a Liberian pupil who won a prize in an Arts Competition (Renner-Lisk, 1972, p. 49). [24]

In 1981 an international conference in Ghana on "education and rehabilitation of the disabled", included a paper about deaf people in the community, by Juliana Sarkodee (1983), Social Development Officer, Cape Coast, Ghana. Sarkodee mentioned that some deaf people gained secondary education at Mampong-Akwapim, and a few like herself had pursued higher courses. "Dr. Tetteh Ocloo has obtained a doctoral degree while I have also obtained my first degree at the University of Ghana" (p. 157). Similarly, a national conference in 1982 on Deaf Education (Mbewe & Serpell, 1983) had significant participation by deaf people. The chairman of the National Association of the Deaf, Matyola P. Ndulo, was prevented from reading his paper only by the fact that he was writing his final year law exams at the time (Ndulo & Mbewe, 1983).

By 1991, a conference on Malta, about "Partnership between deaf people and professionals", with African papers from Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, had signed participation (with interpretation to spoken English), by deaf Africans who were senior officers in national organisations "of" deaf people. The apparent change of balance, in which hearing professionals ceased to be 'in charge', and signing deaf people were taking greater responsibility for their lives and their SL, reflected similar movements across the world. In East and North Africa the swing may have been facilitated by several East African SL seminars and workshops, sponsored by the Finnish Association of the Deaf and other Nordic organisations in the later 1980s and early 1990s, with following publications (e.g. Joutselainen, ed. 1988; Finnish Association of the Deaf, 1992).

History to hand

African deaf groups seeking roots and cultural identity need not, of course, begin with distant history -- there are arguments for starting with materials near to hand, such as membership lists in their own archives or some inspirational current biographies, or school rolls [25]. Mbewe and Serpell (1981) did so during the International Year of Disabled Persons. Their pamphlet Silent Citizens has a few paragraphs of introduction, then photographs and stories of seven deaf Zambians who lost their hearing in childhood or youth, and who were making a success of their lives. At the time, Roger Shacinungo was a property valuation clerk in the Prime Minister's office; Frank Mulundu was a carpenter in the Public Works department; Dorothy Chipembwe was practising her skills as a typist; Patrick Nduluma was extending his small farm; Mubita Mukenani Batuke had a clerical job in the Ministry of Education; Blackson Mwale was working as a buyer in a Lusaka delicatessen; and Mackenzie Mbewe was teaching history and geography to deaf secondary school children, using SL and English, as well as campaigning for the welfare of deaf people. Mbewe's counterpart in a very different culture is Mlle Widad, a deaf young Muslim woman who in 1990, "gathered together a group of deaf people in Safi, southern Morocco, to attend the inaugural meeting of a new cultural and welfare association in the town", to insist on their active participation in its activities ("In Our Own Words", 1995, pp. 99-102).

Surprisingly, deaf people's records are not confined to urban groups. For example, detailed case-notes on 161 rural deaf North Cameroonians (26 deaf from birth; 38 aged in their 40s to 70s), interviewed by local informants, appear in a thesis by Liliane Sorin-Barreteau (1996, I: 198-258), who notes both a broad community-wide level of gestural communication between deaf and hearing people, and also the more sophisticated signing between deaf people in their habitual market rendezvous, which goes too fast for hearing people to follow (pp. 42-43). [26] A published thesis by Deliane Burck (1989) giving detailed studies of disabled Shona individuals in connection with a community-based rehabilitation in Zimbabwe depicts the lives of four adults (apparently born c. 1952, 1959, 1965, 1970) who were deaf or had impaired hearing (pp. 105-106, 192, 199, 206-207) out of 30 people studied. In their cases, the names were changed to protect their privacy (p. 10).

There are also unpublished essays and theses and little-known books lying in African academic libraries, and indeed European and American libraries, which may yield useful material (e.g. Adepoju, 1999; Engelbrecht, 1956/1961; Gebre-Michael, 1983; Gessese, 1970; Mocke, 1971). The fact is that deaf people's culture and background knowledge is needed not only by themselves, but by hearing people who may be providing services, especially in countries where information resources are weak. Sassi Markku (1997, p. 143) describes how the deaf community at Keren, Eritrea, helped some trainee teachers: "Because all the trainees were hearing people, it was difficult for them to imagine what the world is like for the deaf. Hence, it was very beneficial that they had a chance to have discussions with deaf people and ask them questions: the trainees learned a lot of new ideas and saw how the things are from the point of view of the deaf, when the deaf directly told them about their culture, their lives, experiences, aspirations, and needs." From Burundi, however, Adolphe Sururu (1994) noted what would sadly be a more typical situation of a deaf man, Pierre, "who is 58 years old and totally deaf", a man with a wealth of experience, who "could be a virtual library of information for young deaf people", but who has no occasion to meet them, and does not use the sign language they learn at the training centre.

Fostering a future

The period since the 1950s is well within 'living memory', so deaf and hearing-impaired Africans may at least record their own experiences and collect oral history from older deaf people. An organised example is the series of video-recorded interviews, using SL, with 23 deaf South Africans concerning their experiences of education, dating back to the early 1950s (Storbeck, 1997). A reason not to delay is shown by Alexander Okyere and Mary Addo (1999) who hastened to interview the Rev. Dr. Andrew Foster when he visited Ghana in 1987. Foster was a celebrated deaf African-American who studied at Gallaudet and in 1957 went to West Africa to preach Christianity to deaf people. His beliefs also had a practical component, as he initiated a chain of deaf schools, trained teachers to work in them, and established deaf Christian groups in many African countries. A conference proceedings on education of deaf people in Africa, was edited by Foster (1965). He died in an air accident three months after the interviews with Okyere and Addo.

Foster's legacy, however, is the long list of talented deaf Africans whose further studies he arranged and encouraged, such as Peter Okore Mba, Ezekiel Sambo, James Agazie, Gabriel Adepoju, Theophilus Nwakpa (Schmaling, 2000, pp. 23, 266; Ojile, 1999, p. 262), Victor Vodounou [27], Mackenzie Mbewe and others, who have continued for up to 40 years extending the boundaries of what deaf people can achieve in Africa. Not least among them is Florence Serwaa Oteng, one of Foster's earliest pupil teachers at his Ghana Mission School for the Deaf in 1957. In her novelette, "Give Them A Name" (1988), Oteng depicts the strong social stigma of deafness in rural Ghana, and celebrates Foster's insistence that deaf people be known by their proper name rather than the traditional derogatory nickname "Mmum".


There is strong documentary evidence that deaf or hearing impaired men and women, girls and boys, did occupy social space and took roles across the full spectrum of life throughout Africa in earlier centuries, living lives like everyone else and also having some different experiences. Traces and signs of deaf people appear in many sorts of historical document, such as travellers' accounts, legal and genealogical records, government, institutional and missionary archives, linguistic studies, literature, folklore, religious narrative, mime, dance and drama. Many of their experiences have involved severe economic poverty and adversity, stigmatising attitudes and exclusionary practices; yet this has not been the norm everywhere in Africa, and many deaf people have shown great resilience, perseverance, humour and ingenuity in their dealings and communications with the non-deaf world.

The present introductory sketch locates 100 deaf individuals in Africa during a thousand years, 82 with known names, three quarters of them being Black, 18 female, ranging from a solitary Bushman to a Nobel-prize winning scientist, plus several hundred more deaf people represented in clubs, schools and groups. Four of them lived before 1500, another 13 lived before 1900. Evidence is used from Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, both Congos (Brazzaville, and Zaire), Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Western Sahara, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Local searches and oral history recording should be able to generate at least 100 named deaf people in the history of even the smallest African nation, and several thousands in the big countries, along with evidence of signing systems, restricted or elaborated. Such studies can be used by local and national organisations of deaf people to construct identities and evidence-based cultural histories according to their own perceptions of where they have come from and where they hope to go.


[1] On the 'sheer survival' side, foreign help may sometimes be timely, as in the provision of HIV/AIDS education specifically for deaf organisations (Thune, 2003); or even in the presence of a deaf rural aid worker who took the trouble to inform the deaf people in her Ugandan village that an armed hostile force was approaching, which was why all the hearing people were leaving! (Pullen, 2001, p. 24) The peril of being unable to hear your assailant was earlier illustrated by the night murder of old Jacobus Potgieter on his isolated farmstead near Soekmekaar, South Africa, in 1966. He was described as "so deaf that anybody could break in and steal everything without him knowing..." ("Potgieter geskiedenis", trans. 1998).

[2] A somewhat comparable, but much longer, assemblage of varied and fragmentary historical evidence on leprosy sufferers in precolonial Mali is described by Eric Silla (1998, e.g. pp. 26-30, 46-53), with Arabic material from the 11th century onward. Carefully formulated views about deafness and disabled people appeared in Arabic literature at least as early as the 9th century, as for example in Kitab al-hayawan by the influential essayist Al-Jahiz (trans. 1969, p. 164). Such material certainly had some circulation in North Africa in later centuries.

[3] The Ugandan leader Sir Apolo Kaggwa compiled oral history records of Bugandan rulers (Kabakas). Several had serious impairments (Kaggwa, 1971, pp. 18, 22, 47, 49, 50, 60, 80, 97, 100, 101, 107, 112). The 15th century Kabaka Kiggala (pp. 20-23) lived to a great age, apparently became senile, and "By the time he died, Kiggala was already dumb" (p. 22). He might have lost his hearing, or lost his ability to concentrate and respond. See also a rather sceptical analysis of the traditional history of the first eight Kabakas, by Anderson (1975), with notes on Kiggala (pp. 36-40). Dennett (1904, p. 157) noted an instance where princes in Luango country, north of the Congo mouth, elected as ruler "an old man, rather deaf, given to drinking, and otherwise harmless", whom they considered least likely to be able to control them.

[4] Certainly the historical development of Africa's formal and informal service provision should be fully documented and discussed; but that is not the primary topic here. Service development concerned with speech pathologies, hearing impairment, deafness and sign language in the context of South Africa has usefully been discussed and documented in a series of papers by Claire Penn and colleagues, e.g. Penn (1978 and 1993); Penn & Reagan (1999). A brief history of special education development in East and Southern Africa has been sketched by Elias Mpofu, Thomas Oakland & Robert Chimedza (2000), and for West Africa (mainly francophone) by authors such as Cissé, Milandou, Sarr, in a special issue of Educafrica (Unesco, Dakar) in 1981, "L'éducation des personnes handicapées", with specific items on deaf children in Senegal and Congo (Brazzaville). Further material may be found in Vodounou (1996) and Miles (1998). See also web bibliography of c. 1400 items on disability in Southern and Central African countries (Miles, 2003).

[5] Earlier work was launched in deaf histories in South Asia and the Middle East (Miles, 2000a, 2000b, 2001) with some fears that deaf people might have ambivalent feelings about a researcher collecting documentation of how their predecessors were often servants, often abused, often mocked and their sign language parodied -- especially as the author is not deaf, not Asian (nor African), not part of the minority concerned. Such worries were partly relieved by emails from minority representatives, apparently fascinated to see earlier centuries of 'their' histories, of which they knew very little, being sketched with documented chapter and verse in evidence. They wanted to read it themselves and to tell their communities, but did not seem bothered about who had assembled the sketches. Later, no doubt, it will be suggested that deaf historians would have selected and presented material differently. But of course - they should go ahead and do so. That is one of the major purposes of this introductory study.

For the record: no payment, grant, funding, salary, scholarship, expenses or other financial or career benefit of any kind was received before, during or after the above deaf history studies, nor is any expected to derive from the present work. The author gains personally by some increase of knowledge, and by the sheer fascination of the studies. It is hoped that the work may assist other people to obtain research grants, salaries or whatever, as the field begins to develop.

[6] It must also be recognised that the most elusive deaf people may have been those who were well integrated in society, who lived 'normal enough' lives and who appear in historical documents without any mention of their deafness, even though people who knew them were aware of that feature. For example, a web search finds Frederick Grant Banks (1875-1954), who had a varied career as "trader, government official, planter, elephant hunter and game ranger in Uganda". Many letters from Banks between 1896 and 1905 are in a London collection, and provide "a unique record of the life of a junior in a commercial firm in Africa at this time." (Banks, 1896-1905) Elsewhere he appears as "Deaf Banks", one of several renowned elephant hunters. He is unlikely to have got that nickname without a considerable hearing loss.

[7] Another translation makes the admonition slightly more positive, without appreciable change to the sign or gesture reference: "But thou art not one that is deaf, that cannot hear, and one speaketh unto him with the hand" (Erman, trans. Blackman, 1927, p. 292). The Egyptologist Aylward Blackman, translating Professor Erman's work Die Literatur der Aegypter, stated (p. v) that his renderings of the Egyptian texts had "in every instance been made directly from the Egyptian, though strictly in accordance with Professor Erman's interpretation, as set forth in his own German translations." Erman remarked in his introduction (p. xlii) on the variety of possible interpretations resulting from the omission of vowels from the writing and corruption of the textual sources. He demonstrated this with the word 'hear': "Szm can just as well mean "to hear," as "hears," "is heard," "may hear," "hearing," "heard," etc., and we are thrown back on guessing from the context what form is meant in the case in question." The choice of example may have been fortuitous, but more likely based on a complicated passage from the 'Instruction of Ptahhotep', that plays on the word "to hear" (Erman, p. 64).

Three different hieroglyphic representations of words for 'deaf' or 'deaf person' can readily be located in the Koller text and parallels as given by Gardiner (1911), p. 74 (line 10); pp. 84, 86 (lines 15/16, lines 1/2); and pp. 86 (lines 3/4), using the Dictionary of Late Egyptian (Lesko & Lesko, 1982 - 1990, vol. III, p. 92; vol. IV, p. 136; and vol. III, p. 82, respectively). See also Ibid. II: 88; III: 81. The complexities of possible meanings, around speech, hearing and deafness, are demonstrated in a word study by William Ward (1969) in which he compared roots of words in several regional languages and suggested a different meaning in the 'idle student' passage (p. 267).

The reference to sign or gesture communication in the text cited (and a parallel text) should also be approached with caution. The German-Egyptian index (in vol. VI) to Wörterbuch der Aegyptischen Sprache (Erman & Grapow, edn 1982- ) does show under "Zeichen" (sign, signal, indication, mark, etc) two apparent locations for "Zeichen geben mit d. Hand", one being the Koller 2, 5 reference (and parallel in Anastasi IV, 2, 7); and a variety of examples of "zeichen, figur, gestalt" (vol. V, 239-40). The rather dismissive context, and the slightly equivocal translations offered, do not suggest that a formal sign language was in use, but more likely the informal gestures and mime commonly used for simple communication between deaf and hearing people, in the absence of a commonly understood more formal sign system. It might yet become possible for language experts to build a credible case for the existence, and some public awareness, of a formal sign language used by deaf people in ancient Egypt, using various sorts of evidence; but such a case does not yet seem to have been published. (See detailed analysis of "Gesten == Gebärden.", Brunner-Traut, 1977, vol.II).

[8] Curiously, in view of his positive view of signed communication, Augustine has often been held guilty, by writers on deaf history, of setting the Christian church on a path of discrimination against deaf people. He is misquoted as saying that deaf people are incapable of faith, since "faith comes by hearing", a phrase attributed to the Jewish Christian teacher Paul, writing in the New Testament. The charge against Augustine rests on a muddle of words wrenched out of their context in Latin and Greek texts, usually quoted from secondary sources, often in antiquated English. The muddled interpretation has been exposed by theologians, historians, biblical linguists and teachers of deaf people, as for example by Dietfried Gewalt (1986), citing much earlier literature.

[9] Christine Miles (personal comm.) suggests an interpretation in terms of families' experience with children who have a very high fever (e.g. from malaria) and appear to be dying, their spirit seems to be leaving. In some cases the child 'comes back', i.e. recovers and lives; but their hearing has been destroyed by the fever, or in some cases they suffer serious intellectual impairment. Another theory recorded by Stannus (p. 306) was that "every one has a small animal inside the ear, the sounds it makes causes the man to hear. If the animal escapes the man becomes deaf." A similar but slightly larger and more active "maître de l'oreille" is reported to live in people's ears, in the conceptions of the Gbaya in the Central African Republic (Roulon, 1980, p. 95). While hardly supported by medical science, these kinds of belief at least do not impute wickedness to the sufferer. Nor does the ear-animal (which is "said to be 1/2-inch long, and wax is said to be its excrement") involve worrying ideas of invasion by spirits and the need of a trance ceremony to 'cure' the blockage, as described by Tucker (1940, pp. 195, 200) among the Ovimbundu, the largest tribe of Angola. Alice Dallinga (1999) studying deafness among the Mbukushu people of Namibia, notes some flexibility between traditional aetiologies of deafness (witchcraft, affronted ancestors etc) and pragmatic views about treatment and special education.

[10] The problem of being deaf amidst an armed force had been experienced much earlier by Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, who in 1879 commanded 'B' company of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment, of the British forces in South Africa warring with the Zulu Nation. From an old army family, Bromhead had been "hard of hearing for many years, and by now was virtually stone deaf." He tried to conceal it, but "missed commands at drill and could do little in the field". Knowing his deafness, senior officers often gave 'B' Company tasks such as "guarding supply dumps", to the disgust of the soldiers (Morris, 1972, pp. 264, 317). While guarding the depot at Rorke's Drift on 22-23 January 1879, Bromhead acted with conspicuous bravery, holding the position against determined and repeated attacks from a much larger Zulu force. With a fellow officer and nine men, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for this defence.

Ninety years later, the teenager Patrick Atuonah, born c. 1954 and deafened in early childhood at Onitsha in Eastern Nigeria, found himself press-ganged into the Biafran army fighting to secede from Nigeria. He survived war and famine, and completed his secondary education. Patrick was accepted for university, then rejected because of deafness. Eventually he left Nigeria, studied at Gallaudet and qualified as a teacher. His story appears on a university website ("Deaf soldier comes in from the war", 1999).

[11] The explorer Hugh Clapperton (1788-1827) spent several weeks at Kano in 1824 and remarked on the high prevalence of smallpox and of blindness. He left a sketch map of the "separate district or village for people afflicted with this infirmity" [i.e. blindness] "who have certain allowances from the governor, but who also beg in the streets and market place. Their little town is extremely neat, and the coozees well built" (Clapperton, 1824, pp. 655, 661, 671). He also learnt that lame people had a similar place or sector, but did not see it (p. 661).

[12] Other peculiarities in the use of plates in various translations of Dapper's work are noted in a critical paper by Hair (1974, (p. 45, ftn. 17), which exposes some flaws in Dapper's use of primary sources.

[13] The SL may have been Maganar Hannu, Hausa SL. Schmaling (2000) has useful historical paragraphs on deaf people in Kano State, on development of deaf education, and also current observation of social responses. She mentions Forbes's deaf boys, as cited in studies of early education for Nigerian blind children by Kathryn Hill (1993). Most of the Forbes references are in the rare serial, Lightbearer, of an organisation variously known as SIM (Sudan Interior Mission) and SUM (Sudan United Mission), now 'Action Partners', with details on its website. Action Partners kindly supplied a copy of relevant Lightbearer articles, for a modest donation.

[14] This was presumably Rebecca Wareham, wife of Dr Harold Wareham, a medical missionary. (The doctor later wrote about a group of disabled people at Mbereshi Leper Camp in North Rhodesia, "I have not met with a more dissatisfied, grumbling and cantankerous lot of people", who strongly resisted his efforts to improve their environment. It appears that he won over these people).

The impulse to take in a needy young deaf girl was not exclusive to missionaries. Emmanuel Ojile (1999) recounts how Mrs. Oyesola, a Nigerian leader of Girls Brigade activities in the early 1960s, was faced with her own Brigade girls' scorn and rejection of a poor homeless deaf girl, Seliatu. Mrs Oyesola adopted Seliatu, and set about finding some ways to teach her. Eventually she got training at Gallaudet to become a teacher of the deaf, and opened the Ibadan Deaf School in 1963, starting with Seliatu and three deaf boys.

[15] The first Dominican deaf school at Cape Town is usually stated to have begun in 1863. However, the six nuns sailed from Ireland on the 6th August 1863, in response to Bishop Thomas Grimley's appeal to Cabra for teachers - apparently for education in general, not only for deaf children. In the three years after their arrival, three schools were opened: St. Mary's School, St. Brigid's Mission School, and the Grimley School for the Deaf (Congregation of Dominican Sisters, Cabra, website). It is hardly plausible that the nuns stepped off the ship and immediately began teaching deaf South Africans, nor that the first school to be opened was the one for deaf children. The Volta Bureau (1896, pp. 6-7) gave 1870 for the date when the "Convent School for the Deaf and Dumb" was "founded or opened". Barnes (1929, p. 32), after visiting South Africa, also gave 1870. The Cape census report, compiled 1904-1905, stated that, "In Cape Town, there is a small school for the Deaf and Dumb, under the care of the Nuns of the Sisterhood of St. Dominic, where 14 European and 16 coloured children are taught. This school has, it is stated, existed in a small way for the past 30 years." ("Results of a Census", 1905, p. clix)

The census data for the Cape Town Dominican school pupils is useful. Arthur Blaxall (1965, p. 33) remarked that "From the opening day, the Dominican school was prepared to admit Coloured as well as white deaf children, and when I first visited them, soon after my arrival in 1923, there was a class of at least a dozen Coloured children (although quite separate from the main school, and state-subsidized on a much lower scale). Barnes (1929, p. 11) remarked that "nothing whatever has been done for the native and coloured deaf except a small class of about twenty, held in a back room of the R.C. [Roman Catholic] Grimley Institute, Capetown, where the teaching of the whole group, ranging in age from about five to seventeen was entrusted to a deaf teacher, an ex-pupil of the School for the deaf at Exeter." Was this South Africa's first deaf teacher of deaf children, in the 1920s? He or she can probably at least be named, if school, church or government records are investigated. Deaf children at any of these schools were very seldom named in published articles. Janice Breitwieser (1938) had one small black girl named as 'Lily', in a photo caption from the Wittebome school. Breitwieser, an American teacher who spent two years at Wittebome, was amazed at the new construction she saw opened on 3 March 1939. "It is very wonderful to think of such modern buildings for the non-European deaf children" - followed by a detailed account of impressive rooms and equipment.

[16] Knowledge of this 19th century work now seems absent from the deaf education world in Egypt, where it is believed that the first school for the deaf was started in 1936. However, a news item "In Cairo" (1909) noted "the establishment of a school for the deaf in Cairo, where it has for three years had a prosperous existence." A Volta Review article tells of Mme. Sémély Tsotsou founding "L'Ecole L'Espoir" (The Hope School) for 30 deaf children at Alexandria in 1934 ("A School for the Deaf in Egypt", 1941), with photograph and details of one deaf pupil, nine-year-old Andrée, who had made good progress in speaking French. Another item in 1947 noted that Egypt had then a school for about twenty children at Cairo, a government school "being launched at Alexandria", and a private school run by "a Greek lady, Madame Semely Tsotsou", who was also responsible for training 15 Egyptian teachers ("The Deaf in Egypt", 1947). One small deaf girl, Athanassia Boubouly, is pictured there with her teacher. Lababidi & El-Arabi (2002, pp. 9, 38-43, 101-103, 146-48, 176) collate useful evidence for current activities by and for deaf Egyptians, including interviews with two deaf mothers (the artist and actress Hanan Marzouk, and the Sign specialist Hanan Mohsen), some Deaf organisations, and a Deaf Theatre director. Early information on the school at Algiers has also not been readily available. A brief note in 1927 reported the installation of M. Ayrole in place of the retiring principal M. Rolland (Lamarque, 1927).

[17] A photo of Radcliffe Dhladhla sitting with "Tad" (Winthrop Clark) Chapman appeared with an article by Chapman (1939), following a report by Inis Hall (1939) of their South Africa trip arranged by the Rev. Mr Blaxall. Later, when Helen Keller visited South Africa in 1951, Blaxall was again involved with local arrangements across the country. He described the function at the community hall, Duncan Village, East London, where the Tembu chief's wife presented a gift to the world-famous deaf-blind woman. As was her custom, Keller "found the shoulders of the donor, leaning forward to kiss her on one cheek and then on the other." The white visitors were astonished. The Africans roared their delight. The local paper headlined "Helen Keller Kisses Native Woman". Repeatedly through the tour, Blaxall (1965, p. 73) reflected that, like his own deaf-blind adopted son Radcliffe, this deaf and blind woman was more at ease with her fellow humans than most of those who could see and hear.

[18] The problem for deaf people, of getting lost and being unable to communicate with strangers, continues to be known at Adamorobe, Ghana, where many deaf villagers have their name and village tattooed on their arm, as described and pictured by Elena Rue (2002).

[19] At that time, there was no school in Ethiopia for deaf children or youths, though no doubt some ordinary schools had children with impaired hearing. In 1949, Edna Spencer Heffner, an American experienced in teaching the deaf but who was teaching English in an ordinary secondary school in Ethiopia, started a lip-reading club for hard of hearing pupils. She reported that of the four regular attenders, all had improved their grades, and two became proficient (Heffner, 1951).

[20] For example, the film Adama, the Fulani Magician, 1981, shows a deaf performer in Burkina Faso, Adama Hamidou, who recounts his life using "West African Sign Language". <>. See also Note [26].

At the village and semi-nomadic level in north eastern Niger, the anthropologist Susan Rasmussen (1994, pp. 357-58) described the hard, but not unbearable, life of a deaf youth, with whom villagers had some communication. "Although the father was not abusive, he spoke very sternly to him and gave him a heavy workload. He attended neither Koranic nor secular school. People used sign language to communicate, although he also read lips. This boy went on errands and brought garden produce back for different related families. He was not mistreated, but adults were not particularly affectionate toward him." The congenital deafness of this lad, and of his sister, was locally attributed to fate, spirits and sorcery.

[21] See Marghinani, Bk. LIII, final chapter (trans. 1870, pp. 707-708). Current Tunisian civil law holds that deaf people are responsible for damage caused by their action or their fault, "s'ils possèdent le degré de discernement nécessaire pour apprécier les conséquences de leurs actes"; and can act as witnesses in court, "par écrit ou par signes ne prêtant à aucune équivoque" (Tunisia: codes, n.d.). These provisos, while themselves somewhat ambiguous, are important in upgrading their status. Sorin-Barreteau (1996, I: 200) notes that in Mali, in earlier times, there was no possibility of civil litigation against a deaf person (because the deaf were considered to lack sufficient understanding of right and wrong), and this generated mistrust in the hearing population. Obviously, some deaf people who understood the situation well enough could profit from being 'above the law'. In some aspects of law, deaf people have commonly been linked with those having a mental disability. For example, British law prevailing in Ghana and Nigeria in colonial times stated that "every man residing within the district of the Supreme Court, not being a lunatic or deaf, may be required to serve on a jury" (Asmis, 1912, p. 39). The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) included 'legislation' in a survey of national situations of its members, and received responses from 11 African countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Kenya, South Africa, Swaziland, Togo, Zaire and Zimbabwe (Michailakis, 1997). Responses suggest a very slow movement toward recognition of the value of deaf persons in legal systems.

[22] Separate entries appear for "Sangaré, Moussa Ly", and "Sangaré, Dono Ly", in Zell et al (eds) (1983) A New Reader's Guide to African Literature; but the second entry noted that the author "has dropped the name 'Moussa' for that of 'Dono'." (p. 271) Two interviewers, Glinga and Lüsebrink (1986, pp. 18, 20, 26), later enquired about the change of name. Sangaré explained his adoption of an African name in place of an Arab (and Muslim) name, pointing out that, while he was a practising Muslim, there was no need for him to repudiate his cultural roots (p. 19).

[23] A counterpart of Nicolle, at the far end of Africa, was the scientist Dr Philip Gane, who had a long and distinguished career in geophysical research and seismological measurement. Gane was drafted into an impromptu military team that developed radar protection at various African sites in the early 1940s. A colleague named Hewitt (1990) mentioned that "Gane was deaf, stuttered badly and had had no military training at all." However, "we had the famous Gane low voltage transmitter. He was the only person who could set it up but when it was right it was very good indeed." Hewitt also noted that when they were operating near the Suez canal, with better equipment ("thanks again to Gane"), a stray bomb dropped nearby in the night. Gane, who was sharing a tent with a man called Hodges, thought the noise was caused by Hodges swatting flies. While hardly an elegant or precise indicator, this sort of anecdotal evidence remains, through most centuries, the primary means of confirming that severe loss of hearing was present.

A further deaf South African with biomedical PhD, Robert Simmons, born deaf c. 1932, was a senior technician in neuropathology research and lectured for many years at the University of Witwatersrand. Later in life he devoted his energies to research intending to harmonise various branches of South African SL, and to teaching hearing people to sign. He was awarded the prestigious Ashoka Fellowship to further his SL work, and his biodata (to 1992) appears at: <> .

[24] Deaf Africans with nationally recognised artistic skills include an Ethiopian, Afework Mengesha; an Egyptian, Hanan Marzouk (Lababidi & El-Arabi, 2002, pp. 116, 147-48), a South African, Tommy Motswai (Ogilvie, 1988), and doubtless many more. An earlier generation produced the prize-winning Algerian/French monumental sculptor in marble or bronze, Joseph Ebstein, born at Batna (Constantine) on 12 May 1881, d. 1961 (Ritter, 2002). Gallaudet Deaf Biographies Index (listing him as "Ebstain") notes that he was "Active in salons of deaf artists". Cameos of Ebstein's work appear at: <>

[25] A list of deaf secondary school attenders in Zambia names 16 people with birth years from 1958 to 1965; another school names 9 deaf people who joined a deaf unit in 1968, presumably with similar or earlier birth years; another deaf unit names 5 girls enrolled in 1969 (Mbewe & Serpell, 1983, pp. 78, 61, 64). The lists are not reproduced here because these people cannot readily be contacted. (They might be happy to have their names listed on a website; but one cannot be sure without asking them).

[26] Liliane Sorin-Barreteau's description of the market-place deaf rendezvous is paralleled in Kano State. Schmaling (pp. 14-15) details a variety of semi-public locations where deaf people customarily met. Much earlier in her studies, Sorin-Barreteau (1982, pp. 41-42) had set out to document sign and gesture in the North Cameroon locality, both from deaf signers and from detailed analysis of story-tellers' gestures, with the idea of showing their common basis: "notre hypothèse est que le langage des sourds-muets, en Afrique*, est connu de tous ou au moins de tous ceux qui vivent à leur contact..." (* an endnote modifies this to suggest 'in Africa... or at least, in the Mofu society where she was working; but possible with wider applications'). Schmaling (2000, p. 17) suggests that there is some evidence from Ghana, Mali, Niger and Nigeria for a high level of social integration of deaf people. In Kano State, "Many hearing people, old and young alike, are able to converse with the deaf freely and effectively through signs or sign language, at least on a basic level". Schmaling cites other skilled European observers with similar views (pp. 17-19). Experiences of the deaf writer Florence Oteng (1988, 1997) seem, however, to offer a different picture, from southern Ghana.

Some conflict of descriptions certainly reflects the very varied situations and operative possibilities within different parts of Africa's larger countries. Compared with the professional experience and anthropological skills that backed up Sorin-Barreteau's observations in the far north of Cameroon, a very different 'take' appears in the trip diaries of two deaf British short-term visitors to Yaounde in 2000 (McDonough & Robinson, [2001?]). They were visiting Aloysius ["Aloy"] N'Jok Bibium, a deaf Cameroonian born in 1950, who had secondary education in UK and later studied at Gallaudet, returning eventually in the mid-1990s to work for the education and empowerment of deaf people in Cameroon. The two visitors were in culture shock, and their recorded impressions are utterly naive; yet these reactions do illustrate the gulfs separating the living standard, availability of services, and supply of 'basics' such as water, food and electricity, between the capital city of Cameroon and any town of North America or Western Europe. The 'empowerment' of deaf people in rural Cameroon, or almost any part of rural Africa, lies on the far side of a still vaster gulf, not only of economic resources, but of philosophies and of understanding what might be appropriate goals in the terms and concepts of the people themselves.

[27] Robert Serpell (1983, pp. 17-18) refers to an article in Coup d'Oeil, No. 21, 1980, reporting on "research on an indigenous African sign language by Mr Vodonov [sic], the deaf founder and head of a school for the deaf in Benin". This is actually Dr Victor Vodounou, now professor of deaf education, Stephen F. Austin State University, and subject of a video "Life Experiences of Victor Vodounou, Benin, Africa" (American Sign Language; El Paso Community College, 1998), elsewhere described as "found by [Rev. Andrew] Foster and provided an education", and who also "established and ran schools for the deaf overseas" before obtaining migrating to America and obtaining his doctorate at New Mexico SU.


Victoria Nyst, Amsterdam Centre for Language and Communication, University of Amsterdam, kindly supplied information on deaf people and SLs in several African countries. Constanze Schmaling, Hilda Haualand and Christine Miles made useful comments on various aspects of drafts, while Harry Lang, Claire Penn, Claudine Storbeck, Victor Vodounou, Paddy Ladd and others provided information or kind encouragement. Library resources on the ground and on the web provided much useful information; among them Oxford, Gallaudet and Birmingham Universities were prominent. Some paragraphs of the original printed paper first appeared in Deaf History International Newsletter, No. 14, 2002.


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