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Swaziland has the world's highest HIV prevalence rate and a quarter of its children have been orphaned by AIDS. Photo credit: United Bible Societies / Adam Garff

A Bible to fight the isolation of deaf children

Did you know that the deafness rate among children born with HIV is much higher than those without? Find out how we’re at work in Swaziland – a country with the world’s highest rate of HIV – to ensure deaf children don’t miss out on the story of Scripture.

It starts as a slight hearing loss in one ear, glossed over because kids are kids and barely listen at the best of times. But by age nine – or perhaps 11, if they’re lucky – the child is profoundly deaf.

It’s a picture borne out again and again in Swaziland, where more than 4% of children under 15 suffer hearing loss.

Children who contract HIV before birth are three or four times more likely to suffer hearing loss

Now, Bible Society is ensuring these children are not missing out on the stories of Scripture, by translating the Bible into sign language in Swaziland for the first time. A selection of stories will be available on DVD later this year, and we’re aiming to record and produce the whole New Testament for a launch in 2017.

Growing number of deaf children

There are 19,300 deaf children in this tiny African country – compared to 45,000 deaf children in the UK, which has a population more than 50 times the size.

The cause? Shockingly, HIV.  

Bible Society is ensuring these children are not missing out on the stories of Scripture

A 2012 study in America found that children who’d contracted HIV before birth were three or four times more likely than their peers to suffer hearing loss before the age of 16.

In Swaziland, which has the highest HIV prevalence in the world with more than a quarter of adults known to be HIV positive, the effect has been devastating. Today, 5% of the Swazi population is deaf (compared to 1.4% of the UK population).

‘Discriminated against’

 

Mbuli says, 'When they see this book in their language, it’s an excellent feeling for them'
Photo credit: Matleena Järviö

‘More people are becoming deaf in childhood,’ said Ngcebo Mbuli, who leads our team in Swaziland. ‘This community has been really marginalised. Many deaf people also have sight problems, they end up being illiterate, and they feel discriminated against.’

Such is their sense of isolation that, even in this overwhelmingly Christian country, many deaf people are turning their back on church. ‘Deaf people are mainly seen as candidates for prayer or miracles,’ said Mbuli. ‘In a number of instances, healing doesn’t take place. Deaf people are not receiving teaching, or the word of God, so they turn away.’

But our team in Swaziland are working to change that.

First ever Swazi sign language Scripture

Bible Society translators are currently undergoing specialist training with other sign language translators in South Africa, and we’re working with the National Deaf Association in order to understand the deaf culture and community. This will help produce a relevant, high quality translation.

Mbuli said, ‘Some children, especially those who became deaf at three years old or younger, they do not understand the Bible. When they see this book in their language, it’s an excellent feeling for them.’

Teaching and awareness-raising

We’re also helping churches minister to deaf people better. Bible House, our office in Mbabane, Swaziland’s capital, has been the venue for several sign language training classes for church leaders of all denominations. And our team are working with the Prime Minister’s office to raise awareness of the needs in the deaf community.

 

Sign Language graduates signing a song.
Photo credit: United Bible Societies / Francois Sieberhagen

If we leave the deaf community to suffer, we will lose them – they will leave the church

Mbuli said, ‘We were one of the first organisations to publicly stand alongside the deaf community and offer help. We have one language here, Siswati, and we’ve had the Bible in Siswati since 1997 – so now we need to make it available to everyone.  

‘If we become silent or leave the deaf community to suffer, we will lose them – they will leave the church. But the moment we identify with them, we demonstrate the love of God and it brings them up.’


Did you know...

  • 4.1% of Swazi children under 15 suffer hearing loss
  • Swaziland has the highest prevalence of HIV in the world
  • In 2017 we aim to launch the first Swazi sign language New Testament

Pray with us

Ngcebo’s team is planning to film the whole New Testament in sign language by the end of this year. We’ll also be training people in 40 rural churches to become sign language interpreters. Please pray for the success of this work.

Thank God for the trauma healing Ngcebo’s team is able to provide to children affected by HIV. Give thanks that children have the opportunity to engage with the Bible and be comforted and strengthened by it.

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Author: Claire Smith, 27 July 2016 (Last updated: 10 July 2017)

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