Sixth in the Know Her Story Series by Zoneziwoh
“I believe our biggest achievement is having our supporters believe in us and in what we are trying to do for deaf children and young deaf people in Cameroon.”
Mrs. Margaret Bibum, Head of Instruction, Buea School for the Deaf (BSD)
In this exlusive e-interview for the #KnowherStory series, I have the honour to share Mrs. Margaret Bibum's exceptional tale. In her own words she takes us all through her life journey – how she became what she is now: an educational mentor, as well as an advocate for deaf empowerment and promoter for equality for all.
Early Days - School for the Deaf in England
“I was born in England in 1949, which means I am now 63 years old!” This is how Mrs. Bibum started sharing her exceptional tale with me during our e-interview.
“I have one older sister. Both my parents are dead now. I became deaf at the age of 2 years as a result of measles. At the age of 6 years, I was sent to boarding school. Because my parents were devout Catholics they sent me to this school which was the only Catholic deaf school in England.”
Within a short time I settled down to school life. I enjoyed it for the most part. I took my Ordinary levels (O' Levels) and my Advance levels (A' Levels). I originally wanted to train as a librarian, but I was turned down by two universities because I was deaf (remember this was 45 years ago!).
My headmistress, Sister Barbara Walsh, talked to me about teaching. I remembered being shocked at the idea because I never thought I could become a teacher! I was accepted at Trinity and All Saints Colleges of Education (part of the University of Leeds) and trained for thee years as a teacher. After I graduated I went back to my old school and took a three year in-service training programme to become a qualified teacher of the deaf.
I later married my husband who had also been educated at the same school for the deaf as me! He had travelled from Cameroon to England for his secondary education because at that time there was no school for the deaf anywhere in Cameroon!"
In the USA - Deafpride
"Four years after we married, we moved to the USA where my husband and I attended Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. I got my M.A. in Rehabilitation Counselling and then went to work for an organisation called Deafpride in Washington D.C.
Deafpride had many programmes including health access, community access and sign language interpreter training. The organisation also worked with local and federal government to improve services for deaf people. At Deafpride, I learnt many skills which are helping me today. I spent 11 years there.
I began as a Patient Advocate working with low−income deaf women in Washington D.C., helping them to access the health care system. I eventually became Deputy Director of Deafpride. I had for my supervisor and mentor a wonderful woman, Ann Champ−Wilson, who was Executive Director and Co−founder of Deafpride. She had a deaf son which led her to work with deaf people."
While there, Mrs. Bibum adds:
“My husband always planned to return to Cameroon. I followed him here to Cameroon!”
In Cameroon - The Buea School for the Deaf
“We were co-founders with two other people of an NGO called the Cameroon Deaf Empowerment Organisation (CDEO). However, after some time, we both felt the need to establish our own school for the deaf where we could establish our educational philosophy.
My husband is the Director of the Buea School for the Deaf (BSD) while I am Head of Instruction. He is responsible for the fundraising, the building programme, public networking, publicity, etc. I am responsible for the teaching side of the school.
The goal of the school basically is to give deaf children the opportunity of a good education. We have nursery, primary, secondary, technical, and vocational programmes.
In the primary section, we follow the National Curriculum and Class 6 pupils take the First School Leaving Certificate (FSLC). We recently scored 100% in the recent examination. Likewise, in the secondary section we follow the National Curriculum that ends in Form 5 where the students write the GCE O’ Levels. We sent our first batch this year and sadly none of our students made it through four papers.
For the Technical and Vocational students we offer life skills training – for example, carpentry, building, hairdressing, and tailoring. We are hoping that the practical classes will start this year after the building of workshops.
Not only do we give our children education in the classroom, but we give them skills that will enable them to stand as confident deaf young people able to articulate their thoughts and emotions. We try to expand their world view and give them opportunities to learn about the world around them.
I feel sad to see deaf adults who have never had the opportunity of going to school – their world is truly limited because of communication access. They cannot hear speech and do not have reading and writing skills that help to compensate for the lack of hearing. They have very limited understanding of the world around them and are vulnerable to people who wish to exploit them."
Your employees (the teachers), do they undertake trainings in pedagogy plus special training in sign language? Or when they are employed, does BSD train them?
"Most of our teachers are trained either in the Government Teacher Training College (GTTC) or are university graduates. But for Nursery and Primary Class 1 and 2, we have deaf teachers. The reason for this is that they are excellent sign language models for new deaf children entering school for the first time. New, small deaf children arrive at school without any language so the primary task for them is to learn sign language.
When new hearing teachers arrive at BSD they have to undergo an intensive sign language training course often for two or three weeks before classes open to give them basic sign language skills. New teachers also have to learn deaf pedagogy and deaf culture."
Do most of your students come from impoverished families or are they a mixture of poor and rich?
"Our children come from a variety of backgrounds. However, many parents of our deaf students struggle to keep up with the school fees which in turn create challenges for us to operate the school comfortably."
How do you get your students? Recognizing the fact that in our society, most parents with children with disabilities hide them? Or does BSD do tours to homes, communities, and churches, asking parents to enroll their deaf children? Or do you advertise?
"We have an outreach coordinator who goes out looking for deaf children. However, I find that now more and more parents of deaf children are hearing about the school and come to inquire.
Also our own deaf students are excellent recruiters – they often bring parents of deaf children to school. Public events such as Youth Day are an excellent way of publicizing the school."
Challenges & Achievements
What are some of the challenges you face running BSD?
"We have difficulty finding sufficient funds to operate the school. In the recently completed school year we had an enrollment of 110 students from all departments with a staff of 26.
We make sure the children have three meals a day and ensure that they receive medical attention when they are sick. Many parents do not complete the school fees which leaves us in a bad situation.
However, we never send a child out because of inability to pay fees. We try to get sponsorship for those children in need."
What are some of the challenges you see for girls and women with hearing impairments in Cameroon?
"I think that many girls and women in Cameroon are marginalised due to traditional beliefs and practices and lack of equal educational opportunities. With deaf girls and women, it is even more difficult to achieve access.
They are vulnerable to exploitation if they are not aware of their rights."
What are your achievements so far working at BSD?
"Well, I am amazed at what we have done. However, we did not do it alone but with the power of God and wonderful friends and supporters behind us.
We started out as a Primary school, and then created a college, then a technical department and a vocational training department. Furthermore, we moved out of a rented house and bought land at Wokoko, thanks to a grant from a US foundation.
We brought electricity, water (through a bore hole) and built a fence to keep our children safe. We have a computer lab with nine computers and a library well-stocked with books.
We have a school bus donated by a faithful supporter from outside Cameroon. We have attracted good professional teachers. We have a history of 100% success in the First School Leaving Certificate exam (at the end of Primary education) and our first batch of college Form 5 students have recently sat the O’Level examination. We are anxiously awaiting the results of this!
I believe our biggest achievement is having our supporters believe in us and in what we are trying to do for deaf children and young deaf people in Cameroon."
What advice would you give someone who wants to start up an institution for persons with special needs?
"To create a school for the deaf, it is not easy.
First of all, you must get preliminary authorisation from the Ministry of Social Affairs before you can open the school. Also, you must keep in mind a school for the deaf is not a profit−making business. There is no profit in deaf education!
The classes must be kept small to accommodate the special communication needs of the deaf students. They all have to see the teacher and each other communicate at all times.
If you are looking to make money out of a school for the deaf, simply forget it‼"
How do you balance your personal life as a parent and a director?
"It is not easy! Aloy and I do not have children of our own but we are raising the two children of Aloy’s youngest brother who died. We have had Marie and Ivo since they were 4 and 2 respectively. My two children now are teenagers and attend boarding school.
This means that during the term times, my husband and I do not have the children in the house. We are all comfortable with this and look forward to the holidays together. We have also raised other children and now they are married and doing fine!"
What other work do you do apart from working for BSD? I mean when you are not working for BSD, how do you spend your time?
"BSD is my only job! I really just like to stay home most of the time. I do like to travel if I have the opportunity. I am involved with my church – I am Catholic. I teach sign language there and am trying to start an interpreter training class in my church.
In my free time, I read a lot. I also like doing puzzles and like to cook – although I am not very expert at African cooking – I never had the time to learn because I have always worked full−time! I like cooking British and international dishes, but many ingredients are not available to me here in Cameroon. I enjoy the internet when I have time."
Any support from government, NGOs and / or friends? Like having subsidized [aid] for students’ tuition?
"We depend a lot on support, but most of our support comes from outside of Cameroon.
The Cameroon Government, through the Ministry of Social Affairs, gives us some small subvention from time to time. We look for sponsorship for our students to help pay their school fees. We are blessed with support from friends in Europe and USA, some of whom go back to our school days or when we were living in USA.
Some local church groups such as Catholic Women Association (CWA), Presbyterian Women (CWF) and Baptist Women help us with gifts of food.
Women’s social groups also help with food gifts. Some corporate support has been given recently, especially Supermont and Nestle Cameroon. AES−Sonel assisted us with a grant to help connect our school with electricity. We received a grant for the other half from a US organisation."
Any NGO campaigns or government’s role in ‘looking away’ for improved livelihood for deaf persons and children in Cameroon?
"Those of us who are in deaf education (there are not that many of us!) are talking about coming together to talk to the government about giving more assistance to the deaf community.
We ask that the government give support to the concept of equal opportunity for deaf children and youth.
They can do this by supporting deaf education in general, making sure that deaf children are in school in the first place, helping with paying salaries of teachers in schools for the deaf which is done in other African countries.
They should provide support and counselling to families with deaf children. Training programs that are available to hearing people are not accessible to young deaf people."
Vision of a Utopia for Deaf People
What are your dreams for deaf people – young men and women with hearing impairments, especially?
"I guess a kind of utopia where deaf people have the opportunity to be involved in general community life. That they have access to all that society has to offer – captioned TV, sign language interpreters for a variety of events such as hospital visits, classes in hearing educational establishments, church services.
I would like also to see more people take sign language classes – I find that when hearing people take sign language classes that they learn so much about the deaf community and its culture. When people can communicate with each other, barriers are broken down.
I also want to tell you what many deaf people have told me: that they wish their families could accept them to marry a deaf person. I hope for families to be able to communicate with their deaf children and share the history of the family and the culture with their deaf children."
Just Simply See Us!
What would you like leaders to focus on as far as persons with hearing impairments are concerned?
"To just simply see us! We are here, but we are forgotten! When planning an event think of how deaf people can participate. When giving out scholarships to hearing students, why not think about deaf children and scholarships?
When you see us in church, greet us.
When developing programmes ask us what we need, don’t decide for us!"
Buea School for the Deaf
Know Her Story Series
Regina Zoneziwoh (Mbondgulo) is a global Citizen DAWNS Digest award winning humanitarian reporter and storyteller, working in Cameroon to interview and give voice to women's perspectives on the country's development.