PROFILE: Judy Kihumba, bridging the gap for mothers whose hearing is impaired

PROFILE: Judy Kihumba, bridging the gap for mothers whose hearing is impaired

By Patience Nyange and Esther Kiragu

This week in the Kenya Women Series we feature Judy Kihumba, a sign language interpreter; communicator; passionate about capacity building for mothers with hearing impairment, specifically in promoting their mental health as an integral part of their wellbeing.

Mental health is an integral and essential component of health for each one of us. According to the World Health Organisation, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Therefore, it is important to think of those who fall into special categories such as people with special needs, including the deaf, dumb and generally, people living with disabilities.

Language is the greatest communication barrier in a silent world. If you have your sense of hearing intact, you get to listen to information from any source as long as you understand the language; be it in a face-to-face session, radio, TV, webinar and chit chat from friends. But for those with impaired hearing, they have to use sign language in their communication.

Judy Kihumba, a wife and mother of two beautiful girls, is a sign language interpreter and advocate of mental health and wellness of nursing mums with impaired hearing. “I am also the founder of ‘Talking Hands, Listening Eyes’. My passion for sign language started way back in high school at Rev. Muhoro School for the Deaf,” she says.

But how did you end up in this school yet you have no challenges with your hearing?

“After my O-levels, I was set to join a provincial high school which never happened due to lack of school fees.  Therefore, I postponed school for two years, working as a house-help to raise the required school fees. Two years later, I had saved some money enough to join Rev. Muhoro School for the Deaf, a stone throw away from my grandparents’ home in Nyeri County.

“My initial days were challenging as I had no prior knowledge of sign language, which was the only language of communication. I am a strong believer in ‘When life gives you lemons, instead of whining, make lemonade.’ Continuously, as I interacted with the deaf students, my passion for sign language began to grow. Upon completion, I joined the University of Nairobi Sign Language Research Centre, where I sharpened my skills,” she says.

Later, Judy joined St. Paul’s University in Nairobi, to pursue a degree in Development Communication and Public Relations.

“In 2010, I was privileged to be part of the committee of experts who toured the country to create awareness about the new constitution. My constant interaction with communities of those with hearing impairment laid a foundation for my career journey. It was during this time that organizations like the Legal Resources Foundation Trust (LRF), the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK), and now the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) contacted me to interpret their civic education training materials. Since then, I have been working with various media Houses like KTN and Njata TV to interpret their news bulletins. Currently, I work at PCEA St. Andrews Church in Nairobi, in charge of the Disability Ministry.

As a sign language interpreter who has ten years of experience working with those who have hearing impairment, please share with us some of your experiences in your line of work and the strides made that you are most proud of?

“My ministry in church as the liaison between the hearing pastors and those whose hearing is impaired. When I see them connect with the word of God and understand, it gives me fulfillment because many deaf people don’t interact with the Bible in church or in school due to communication barriers.

“Seeing a mother’s ability to learn the basics of motherhood and take care of their babies and themselves makes all the difference in my life. Being a bridge between mothers with hearing impairment and health workers enables them to receive better medical attention. The smiles they give when they have been effectively heard is heavenly for me. I live for such feedback.

You are a firm believer and supporter of inclusivity and equal opportunities for women and girls whose hearing is impaired and an advocate of mental health and wellness of such mums. Tell us why you are so passionate about this?

“I suffered from postpartum depression (PPD) in 2019 after the birth of my second daughter. I am grateful for the support I received from my husband and friends. They helped me through the process; otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing this series today. Mothers whose hearing is impaired cannot express themselves as hearing mothers would, made me realize the challenges exposed to them since most of their family members do not understand sign language.

“Since I know their challenges, I purposed to walk this journey of motherhood with them while helping them understand the basics and how to overcome the challenges. Breaking down the available information on mental health to a language they understand goes a long way,” she says.

Please tell us more about your organization ‘Talking Hands, Listening Eyes’.

“Talking Hands, Listening Eyes on Postpartum Depression (THLEP) is an organization that advocates for maternal health of women whose hearing is impaired. It was formed in 2020, to address challenges posed by COVID-19 on the mental health of nursing mothers whose hearing is impaired. I went through postpartum depression and when I met some mothers with hearing impairment going through a similar situation, I quickly felt the need to speak out and break the silence in a bigger way. Many women with hearing impairment are going through their pregnancy journey alone, so it’s for this reason, we are there to offer a hand of encouragement and hope,” she says.

What are some of the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the community whose hearing is impaired and how can people of goodwill support you to provide solutions?

“Their sources of livelihood have been disrupted, as most of them are casual laborers and live from hand to mouth. They are used to a community type of living, but it has become more challenging for them to engage and support each other with the ongoing curfew and lockdown. The biggest challenge, however, even without the pandemic, is the communication barrier between them and their family members who do not face similar challenges.

“We are hopeful that there will be better days ahead. Having a food bank will help us ensure that none of the mothers  whose hearing is impaired goes without a meal. If there is a possibility of partnering with hospitals around to give free medical checks, especially for mothers with young babies, that will go a long way. I advocate for families to learn and understand sign language as this will be a whole milestone in breaking the communication barriers.

“I would also want to partner with Diaper manufacturing companies to assist the nursing mums with diapers. It’s tough for a mum to balance between a diaper and a meal. Donations of diapers or baby clothes or any other kind from good samaritans are welcome. One can also adopt a mother for a packet of diapers annually,” she says.

If you were to choose the two most important values you live by and keep you grounded in the way you work and live, what would they be and why?

“It is difficult to limit it to only two, but I think I would say to show and care about the feelings of others. Having experienced postpartum depression first hand, I know how lonely it can be, so I’m ready to walk with such mothers all the way. I have realized that it’s not enough to be emphatic about the challenges faced by mothers around me with hearing impairment; I need to do something more, especially for first-time mothers. We all can,” she says.

How do you describe yourself, and how do others describe you?

“I am committed and passionate about raising the standards of how we treat and perceive people with hearing impairment in our community. I do not struggle to get up in the morning because I love what I do; I have a steady source of motivation that drives me to do my best. I thrive on challenges and do not settle on anything less than my best,” she says.

We asked those who know Judy to describe her.

“She is one with a distinctive personality, kind and caring, always ready to devote her time in helping and supporting the needs that are within her reach. I’m proud to call her a friend,” Shifra said.

“She is resourceful. She is always solving problems even before being asked to.  It is a no brainer that she would take up the burden of mothers whose hearing is impaired and carry it as her own, simply because it will smile knowing that someone cares,” said Cassandra.

As we come to the end of this interview, we ask Judy for her parting shot.

“I believe we all have a duty to make a difference. Seek your purpose to do so. I encourage all those who can hear to be more supportive in ensuring that even those with hearing impairment can achieve their full potential in life. I’m determined to make a change and equip knowledge to mothers whose hearing is impaired, one at a time. Love is stone deaf…… It is not enough to tell someone you love them, you have to show it. The best and most beautiful things in the world can’t be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart,” she says.

Esther is a writer, editor, and communications professional in Kenya while Patience Nyange is a Chevening Scholar with a Masters Degree in International Public Relations and Global Communication Management from Cardiff University. Prior to joining Cardiff University, Patience served as an Assistant Director at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR).

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