(Seychelles News Agency) – Anita Gardner, an activist for the Seychellois deaf community, has dedicated her life for the past 17 years to working with people who are hard of hearing.
She set up the Association of deaf people (APHI) in 2005 to meet the needs of deaf Seychellois.
Her latest project is translating songs and poems into sign language.
SNA caught up with Gardner to commemorate International Women’s Day on March 8, to learn more about her journey in this noble endeavour.
SNA: Tell us about yourself.
AG: I am married with one son. I grew up at the Morne Blanc tea factory, on the property itself. My father was among the first to work in the tea business since it opened. Growing up in such an environment means that I love nature very much and am strict about cleanliness. I like to listen to music, especially jazz, instrumentals and recently I sing in sign language. This is one of the jobs I do now – translating songs and poems.
I attended school in St Paul and once zoning was introduced I went to school in Mont Fleuri. When my parents separated, I had to go to Port Glaud for the last years of my secondary studies. Since my childhood, I have always liked challenges. I didn’t go to post-secondary because I’m a more hands-on person – I always knew I would do charity work, even as a kid. At school, you would have found me with the less popular children. I started working very young and one of the first weekend jobs I did was with the neighborhood social worker.
SNA: How did your journey with the hearing impaired begin?
AG: Throughout my life I’ve tried a lot of things but I always knew it wasn’t what I wanted. Years ago, sign language caught my eye but I put it in a little box in my head with the intention of returning to it. I then started my own business, but I knew I was supposed to be somewhere else.
It all happened during a trip to South Africa. I had to come back to the Seychelles after a month, that’s the maximum time I could say in South Africa. For 24 hours, I crossed the border to Namibia and then returned to South Africa. I joined a group of deaf people and realized this was what I was looking for.
Everything fell into place and I opened this little box that I had hidden in my head. The exposure in South Africa was very positive – some of the deaf people I met had their own businesses and could read, whereas in the Seychelles we thought these people were crazy. In Namibia, I met a seamstress to the then First Lady, who taught sewing to deaf girls. It inspired me.
SNA: What happened when you returned to the Seychelles?
AG: I came back with the firm intention of doing a similar project. It was supposed to be a small project called ‘Curiosity Project’. I never imagined that things would become so important at the time. I opened it at Victoria Market where boys and girls could join in making crafts. We also did fashion show in the market in 2004 or 2005.
As deaf people went to school and university in Namibia, I wanted the same for the Seychelles. It was then that I decided to set up an association in 2005.
Before its creation, I tried to work with people who are hard of hearing. Reunion Island [a French overseas department] proposed the idea to the Seychelles but they had set up a committee, not an association. When I created the association, I asked these people to register because I wanted to work with them. Some of my personal friends, deaf people and their relatives also joined us and we have been pushing forward ever since.
SNA: What are some of your biggest challenges and accomplishments over the years?
AG: The first thing we had to think about was what to prioritize. Back then, there wasn’t much in the country for the hearing impaired. Education was our top priority. I had to travel back and forth to South Africa to visit their school to gain more knowledge. Getting the right resources was a big challenge.
From 2002 to 2005, I had to finance almost alone. When the association was created, we started to get sponsorships. Opening the first school was the biggest achievement for us. Many deaf children in the Seychelles grew up illiterate. With the establishment of the school, we want to ensure that children have equal access to education.
|Gardner said opening the first school was the biggest achievement for us. (Seychelles Nation) Photo License: CC-BY|
SNA: Are you satisfied with the structures currently in place for the deaf in Seychelles?
AG: When we started the association, we were under one government, and since then we have had several changes of presidents, which has led to changes within the government. A lot of the key people we communicated with have changed and that has been a big challenge. When new people are appointed, we have to explain things again.
under the new [current] government, we are picking up where we left off and that is something positive. They trust me and understand that this is the right path for deaf people;
We must no longer be at the stage where we are fighting for our rights, we must look at our missions and our objectives. In the past, we didn’t really have the chance to work with the government because the structures in place hindered us rather than helping us to move forward. When I speak, I do so for all minority groups. When the government writes its plans, it must target all groups. When budgeting, every group needs to be considered. The same is true when writing policies. We should not constantly have to approach the government to tell it that we were not consulted. We want to be included from the start.
SNA: What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on your work?
AG: When COVID-19 hit the country, we were at all the press conferences. We approached affected parties voluntarily to provide the service because we believe this information should be available to everyone in society.
People who are hard of hearing can become anxious if they don’t understand a situation and that’s why we made sure to be present during press conferences. When wearing a mask became mandatory, we had a translation problem. That’s when we went to our Facebook page. We have made our own videos from the news, to inform the hearing impaired. We have had discussions with SBC to translate news articles. The problem we face is that we lack interpreters. We could start with a weekly newsletter.
|Gardner (1st from left) with a group of hearing impaired athletes who competed in an international sporting event. (Seychelles Nation) Photo License: CC-BY|
SNA: What does the association have planned for the future?
AG: We did the foundation work as an association. The school has been established, we have trained teachers, which means we can train more, we have our center equipped to provide most services to a deaf person.
We will now move on to creating other programs. This year we are busy with the CJSOI (Indian Ocean Youth and Sports Commission) where two of our students will be participating. There are also preparations for our Indian Ocean Games athletes. We now need to work with the Department of Health so we can start making a difference in the lives of deaf children as soon as they are diagnosed.
We run classes for people who want to learn sign language, but we’ve found that many stop halfway due to their busy schedules. What we want to do, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education as it develops new curricula, is to introduce sign language at the school level. There are sign language dictionaries that we can give to schools, but we will also create short videos, which will be easier for teachers to use. We are still sorting out some things.
We would also like to see Seychellois Sign Language adopted as the fourth official language of the country. At the moment, I am working on certain documents which will be sent to the Cabinet of Ministers and later to the National Assembly.
SNA: What message would you like to convey for Women’s Day?
AG: First of all, I would like to thank all the women who work within the association. We greatly value all female team members, but Deaf society needs more males to be part of it. We need men to be more active.
We have many senior people in government who are hearing impaired and we would like them to join us in inspiring others, letting them know that they can have a rich and normal life.