All photography by Layton Thompson

The song of a deaf boy disowned by his father

Head of Supporter Relations, Tom Newbold, reflects on his recent visit to the only school for the deaf in eSwatini.

I like John chapter 3, verse 16 where it talks about Jesus loving the world. God is good. He sent Jesus to love us.

The words above came from Thandolwethu, a lively little boy I met on a recent visit to eSwatini (previously known as Swaziland). But he didn’t speak them in the way you might expect. Like tens of thousands of others in eSwatini, Thandolwethu is deaf, and he was communicating with me through a sign language interpreter.

Thandolwethu attends the only deaf school in the whole of eSwatini. There, his school teaches him about the Bible using sign language. This is a vital ministry in the country, and it’s thanks to our generous supporters that the Bible is being translated into sign language.

Why not just read a regular Bible?

Before my visit, I had many questions: why was a Bible translation into sign language necessary in the first place? The head teacher of Thandolwethu’s school helped me understand.

Watch Thandolwethu sign his song...

‘The language of the deaf people is sign language – not English, not siSwati, but sign language,’ she told me. ‘We use hands, we use our eyes, we use our brain, we use our body to understand the things in front of us. So when the Bible is in sign language, it helps us to understand it better.’

This was clearly true for Thandolwethu. He signed to me, ‘I can’t understand about chapters in the Bible, but I can understand the stories.’

It became apparent to me that for Scripture to be truly available to everyone – a core mission of Bible Society – we can’t just rely on existing formats and translations. We have to make God’s word as accessible as possible, to reach out to every tribe, nation and people.

Deaf people like Thandolwethu in eSwatini can be severely marginalised, struggling to feel accepted or valued in the society around them. They are often isolated by their communities, and might have limited access to education and employment opportunities.

‘The parents feel like it’s a burden to them,’ Thandolwethu’s head teacher told me. ‘One parent once said she would have killed her baby if she knew she had given birth to a deaf child.’


A vital source of truth for the deaf community

As I spent more time with Thandolwethu, I saw none of the hurt or shyness you might expect to see from his life as a deaf young person in eSwatini. He just exuded joy.

When I asked him what difference the Bible made to him, he said, ‘I thank God now because I know how to respect others.’

And then a remarkable thing happened. He started singing, in sign language. Springing up from his seat opposite me, he began to dance and make energetic signs. The interpreter translated it for us: ‘Wow, wow – God is good! Wow, wow – God is strong! Wow, wow – God made everything!’

‘That’s my song,’ he said.

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