I am Angela Spielsinger, Producer for “The Hub” under Remark Media. Travelling is my biggest passion and I still have the bug to catch a plane and go anywhere! I always had a passion to work abroad. I remember when I was 14 years old watching “See Hear,” and an episode of the series about deaf people in Uganda inspired me, but I didn’t know where to start.
During my University years, I did lots of voluntary work with young deaf people, organised a successful youth exchange to Japan and Iceland, and got involved in the EUDY camp in Portugal and WFD Youth Camp in Canada. I travelled around and met lots of people and it gave me the idea to work abroad. Just by coincidence, someone emailed me and recommended I apply to Youth for Development under VSO (Volunteer Work Abroad) and from there, the rest is history.
I didn’t pick The Gambia as my placement as it was the responsibility of the VSO to find a suitable placement for me. I remember telling them during my assessment that I wanted to work anywhere in Africa. I was told it is best to be flexible, though suddenly a placement was confirmed one month before I arrived in The Gambia and it was such a rush to get all of my vaccinations done and to prepare what to bring with me.
Working in Gambia
My role in The Gambia was an Advocacy Worker with Deaf Women, but near the end of my placement, I did everything I could do – I set up their first Deaf club which is running successfully today, supported the nursery school children, did outreach work around the community and brought more children to the school. I built up a relationship between the Deaf Association and the Deaf school and got involved in several disability charities and travelled up-country under the Gambian Association of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (GADHoH) to find more deaf people in rural areas and set up branches out there.
I remember arriving to an unknown country with no knowledge of Gambian sign language and not knowing anybody at all. When I met everyone for the first time, they gave me a warm welcome with their arms and big smiles on their faces. Apparently Gambia is well known as ‘The Smiling Coast.’ I didn’t want to take over their lifestyle and change their ways; it is important for me to take on their culture and share their skills. I started with an open welcome meeting, and asked the local deaf people what they wanted from me.
From that I followed up those priorities throughout the year. I become fluent in Gambian Sign Language within the first 3 months. I built up a special relationship with them which still remains today (I have just returned from visiting them few weeks ago). They respect me hugely and it is a special bond between me and them.
Challenges for Deaf Gambians
There are too many things I can think of as challenges that Deaf people in Gambia face. A high percentage of deaf people in The Gambia are unemployed and many deaf children don’t go to school, as their parents can’t afford the school fees. There is only one deaf school in the country and many deaf people are from rural areas with no education access.
I remember during my time there, when I set up a deaf club for the local deaf members, many parents disapproved of it as they didn’t want their deaf daughters to mix with deaf boys; relationships later blossom between deaf men and women as they can communicate and understand each other. Now more deaf couples are marrying each other.
I was working in the Female Wing with deaf women who had never been educated, they couldn’t write at all. I taught them basic English and encouraged them to write their names as most of them just signed ‘X’. Many parents hide their children’s disability as they feel it’s a punishment from god. It is their culture which they have believed for many years.
I remember when I was working with the nursery school children, we had limited resource materials but I learnt to think of other things that were useful for them. I was a volunteer and I can change their knowledge, but I cannot change their culture; I had to respect their culture as I would not be with them forever. Being a volunteer was one of the best times of my life – if you are considering being a volunteer, please apply to VSO as they will help you achieve your dreams!
Angela Spielsinger works as the Producer of The Hub, under Remark Media. She has a passion for travelling, and for volunteering. Her experience volunteering and working in Gambia exposed her to a whole different culture and way of life, and she helped to improve the lives of deaf women and the community as a whole. If you would like to do the same, get in touch with VSO.