Sign language, education and friendship in Togo: Moussifa’s story
Moussifa was born in 2007 in Togo. Long deprived of a primary education because of her hearing impairment and difficult family situation, she has finally been enrolled in school thanks to Handicap International, who intervened with the educational authorities in Togo on her behalf. She now attends a second-year primary school class (almost) like any other.
Moussifa, 9 (centre), in a French-language lesson with her second-year primary school class | © Studio Cabrelli / Handicap International
Standing at the front of the class, Moussifa patiently recites the words written in chalk on the blackboard, words familiar to every child who is learning to read: “This morning, Aliou went to school. In his bag there is a pen, a notebook, a pencil, a slate, a pencil and a book. His mother is happy.”
But Moussifa doesn’t utter a word. Instead, she makes precise, rapid signs with her hands, and when she stops signing, her classmates wave their hands in the air to congratulate her. Hearing-impaired since birth, Moussifa learned sign language at Kara Centrale primary school in the town of Kara, northern Togo, with all of her classmates.
“So that she can go to school with the other children, Moussifa had to be understood by everyone,” explains Tidénèbè Tagba, who teaches a class of 7- to 8-year-olds. “All of the teaching staff in the school have learned sign language, along with the pupils.”
Obstacles to inclusion for children with disabilities in Kara
According to Bénédicte Laré, head of Handicap International’s inclusive education projects in the regions of Kara and Dapaong, although the Kara Centrale school is now held up as a model for the inclusion of children with disabilities in Togo, that wasn’t always the case.
“Most children with disabilities in Kara have problems accessing education. They encounter resistance from parents. Some teaching teams refuse to include them in mainstream schools. The school infrastructure might be inaccessible, or a long way from home, or their parents might be poor.”
Moussifa was only able to enrol in primary school at the age of seven. Not only does she have a hearing impairment, she also comes from an extremely deprived background: she has lost her father, and now lives with a friend of the family, who didn’t have the money to enrol her in Kara Centrale school.
Better education for all children
For Bénédicte Laré, Moussifa is a good example of how it is possible for children with disabilities to attend school in Togo, and the progress made towards including them in schools.
“Moussifa was turned away by a lot of primary schools when she tried to enrol. The teaching staff were really reluctant, because of her disability and the fact that her family is poor,” she explains. “The school’s management team would usually direct her to a special school, which threatened to exclude her even further.”
“Handicap International has carried out a lot of background work to raise awareness and train teaching staff from schools in three regions of Togo. One of the results has been the teaching of sign language to pupils and teachers at Kara Centrale primary school."
At the same time, the organisation has set up a network of mobile teachers specifically trained in disability to make it easier for children with disabilities to continue attending and succeeding at school, in coordination with local disabled people’s organisations.
In 2015, 250 primary schools in Togo were provided with support by Handicap International, which has helped improve the schooling of more than 1,000 children with disabilities, including Moussifa.
Today, Moussifa has been fully included in her school. She gets good marks and she is beginning to play games with her school friends, with unexpected results.
“Since they learned sign language, the girls can talk to each other without their parents understanding what they are saying!”explains Bénédicte Laré.
Handicap International’s inclusive education activities in Togo are conducted as part of the regional APPHEL project (Promoting the full participation of children with disabilities in education) which benefits from the support of the French Development Agency (AFD).