It’s an interesting thing when your heart breaks—you feel as if it should be something everyone could witness and say “aww” or “do you need help?” Or perhaps that it should make a sound--cracking or slow buzz of sadness, running through your veins, pumping throughout your body. That is the thing about the heart, it has its own prerogative, maybe that is why matters of the heart feel so unresolved in our lives, the palpitations of sadness have to be felt, but perhaps never quite understood.
Living in Africa has its share of heartbreaks. It demands honesty with the world which from a far could seem impossible. I see a reality that I could imagine but never really felt. Sometimes you look the world in the face and you enfold yourself in the brilliance that it possess, and other times you want to look away. The difficulties can truly overwhelm. How can one person even consider change when the world is full of such unanswerable and unreasonable situations?
He is bright beyond his meager 16 years, though you would never guess from this reticent, unassuming boy, who is often times found wandering alone. Once you get his attention he’ll inform you with a shy smile he is “thinking” signed as the pointer finger touching the temple. Silas is often found thinking, which is evident from his test scores—he is a curious by nature. He always knows the answers to questions in class yet is hesitant to “show off.” Often times he waits until everyone else has tried before he answers (the correct answer he knew all along) and you can bet when he explains his answers it is clear and with confidence, when you praise him a huge smile grows on his face but he always tries to cover it by turning into his shoulder. While he is not the most athletic, or outgoing, Silas really comes into his own at school; he is well liked amongst all teachers and pupils a like. In a school for the Deaf he is able to socialize, debate, joke, be understood and appreciated.
Life hasn’t always been easy for Silas, he lost his hearing when he was 7-years-old, when asked how he reenacts a slam on the head—when I inquire who? He looks at his feet for a moment and signs teacher in class 4; he is told to say it was illness, but he was beaten so badly for “misbehaving” that he became deaf. Since then everything has changed: he was moved to a boarding school, has learned a new language KSL, and has found a new family at school.
Despite the fact that Silas is at the top of the class (and has been for his total duration at school) he has never arrived on the day school has opened. Sometimes weeks, sometimes months of phone calls asking about the boy until finally he arrives at school. Yet he never misses a step in class despite his absence, but is often times recovering from some wound or another. Last term he returned with a two inch open wound on the back of his head, he was embarrassed when questioned and stared at his feet. I tilt his chin up and sign “problem nothing, better soon” he stares at me for a moment I can see the tears building in his eyes. “OK?” I sign, he shyly signs “ok” I sign jokingly with a grin “don’t smile, please don’t” “ I see the sides of his grin turning upward and he covers his mouth. “I said no” I sign with a smile, and then we are both laughing, I pat him on the back; sign “you good, you know right, you good”. I leave with the uneasy sense there are no limits to the times I could sign that to him, and no limit to the times he needs to see it.
He has just finished class 8 and sat for the national exam the K.C.P.E., the test is given in November and pupils report to schools to receive their scores in January, yet no one has arrived. I remember the last day class 8 was at the school, I chatted to them about the future and Silas looked me in the eye and signed, “I want to go to secondary school” then looked away. I know he belongs in school and deserves an education. He left that day and I had a heavy heart, the chances of him coming back were slim.
We have received the results for the K.C.P.E. and Silas has been accepted to secondary school ( In Kenya secondary school is not mandatory and pupils are accepted on a competitive basis, it is also not paid for by the government). He is the only one of our class 8 to achieve this. This is a huge accomplishment; the whole school is proud of him yet Silas has not been seen. For the past 3 weeks we have been trying to find Silas. We have called his family, asked neighbors, asked students, and yet it is to no avail. I cannot explain the utter despondency I feel--to see this young, bright mind go missing. Theories have arisen and concerns voiced but what action is to be taken?
My work, everyday, is to give these children the best I have—every time. Sometimes I struggle with what my role is, or what affect I am having here, because what I am doing has no tangible signs, no buildings, or computer labs, or businesses, if I left you would hardly know I was ever here. What I have done is not that easy to define. Teaching a child to read, and write it does not provide a lot of glory, but I know education is the most sustainable and powerful way to change the world—but on days when a smart, creative, warm, student is just lost—what is left?
I wasn’t settled with the idea of Silas not being in school, everything about it just felt—wrong. I asked my teachers again what could be done, and they said “find him,” I knew instantly this is what I have to do. The teachers told me of the closest school to Silas, I could travel there and find out where he stays from the school. I was told his home was very “interior” meaning far from the tarmac, in a village. My only hesitation was the language barrier because I do not speak enough Kiembu to explain why I was around. Luckily another teacher offered to take me there and help interpret.
I woke up 5:30 a.m. to prepare for the journey, I was nervous, questions ran through my head, “how will we find this boy?” “what will happen once we do?” I somehow managed to make it out of the door. I met the teacher in town and we headed out, stuffed into a matatu, we passed the thick shambas filled with mangos, and people became sparser. We walked about 6 km into a small village, where a man nearly fell off his bike at the sight of a mzungu. We finally reached Kasafari Primary School where we were greeted, and told Silas' brother attended this school and could lead us to his home. We were taken down a small path and lead to a small homestead; the home is quite traditional, made of earth with a tin roof. We were introduced to the his father, mother, and grandmother-- they shrieked when they saw me.
They questioned in Kiembu:
“How did you get here?”
“I walked,” I said.
“To visit my bright student Silas, and find out why he is not going to school.”
They shrieked again. Soon Silas appeared and was shocked to see us, but greeted us warmly. The Silas I found here was very different then the one I knew in school, frightened and shy. I asked him to show me around his compound, and he opened up explaining what each plant in the shamba was, yet the moment he was in front of his parents, he closed down, embarrassed to sign.
We asked the parents if they knew he was accepted to secondary school. They were shocked and said “ but he is deaf, he cannot do well.” The teacher with me assured them that Silas was very capable and would undoubtedly excel in secondary school( his family may mean well, but in the culture, sending a Deaf boy to school at all is a altruistic endeavor). They told us they could not afford to pay for secondary school, because they have five other children. Silas sits quietly observing, yet unaware of what is being said, in his own world. He is surrounded by a world of misunderstood solitude, at Saint Luke’s he is a hero, a success, but here, what is he? I ask him again what he wants to do with his future. He looks me in the eye then to his father, then rapidly back at me and signs, “ I want to go to school.”
My heart breaks, a million times over. I am not a big fan of throwing money around, because often times it is not sustainable or creates a false expectation; and the truth is all the children at my school have similar stories; all heartbreaking and tragic in their own right, but this child deserves an education. I must try to do everything in my power to see that Silas gets an education.
The truth is there are hundreds of Silas', deaf children brushed aside, oppressed, misunderstood, and when I think of that I am overwhelmed. Silas is just one of many. One child— although small and to some insignificant, can represent a whole population of change. I can recognize my smallness, and the fact that could never give enough, do enough, change enough, but I sign to Silas “you will go to school” and I mean it, somehow it is enough.
Silas is registered with the Kenya education fund, if you would like to donate to Silas education please click the link, and under designation field write referred by Virginia"Ginnie" Seger.