Earlier this month, we highlighted the work of Callixte Ikuzwe from the Rwanda Union of the Blind (RUB). Now, we would like to highlight the work of Samuel Munana, the executive director of the Rwanda National Union of the Deaf (RNUD).
Since its inception, the disability rights movement has used the mantra of “nothing about us, without us” to call for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all matters that impact them. School-to-School International (STS) uses this mantra as our guiding principle in our inclusive education work by ensuring we partner with organizations of persons with disabilities (OPDs) wherever we support inclusive education projects, including Nepal, Rwanda, and the Philippines.
Last year, Samuel Munana and RNUD, where Munana serves as executive director, played an instrumental role in partnering with STS to pilot an Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) for children who are deaf and hard of hearing in Rwanda. We spoke with Samuel about his work with RNUD earlier this month. The interview has been edited for clarity and content.
STS: Can you tell me about your organization and current inclusive education work?
Samuel: RNUD, as an organization, is advocating for Deaf people here in Rwanda in different programs and areas of education. Economic development and sign language are cross-cutting in all our programs’ work. We want the government of Rwanda to recognize sign language as an official language in Rwanda.
Inclusive education is a new term here in Rwanda. But we appreciate the government of Rwanda’s movement to promote inclusive education. That is very good. Our only issue is how inclusive education is implemented because most teachers don’t know Rwandan Sign Language. So, when you are in a classroom where [you] have hearing and Deaf students, it becomes hard for a teacher to teach Deaf children because the teacher will speak more than using Rwandan Sign Language.
STS: What are your organization’s goals to address the problems with inclusive education that you just mentioned?
Samuel: We, as RNUD, are continuing to advocate to the government so that they understand the real meaning of inclusive education. We have a government policy named the Special Needs and Inclusive Education Policy. It explains how to teach all children with disabilities and without disabilities. But the implementation of that policy is not good. We advocate according to the policy; we are advocating that it can be implemented in a good way.
The teachers must know sign language. Deaf children must start sign language early. Hearing children can start in Kinyarwanda as a mother language and move to English and other languages. But for Deaf children, it goes directly to English or Kinyarwanda. So that’s why we are advocating that Deaf children start with Rwandan Sign Language so they can learn other languages as well.
And we are working hard to ensure that sign language is a part of schools’ lessons. For example, English [classes] have six hours a week, but sign language has zero hours. Why? At teachers’ training college, they have different lessons, and we want [them to] learn sign language. It is not necessary to be fluent in sign language, but the importance of learning sign language is knowing how to care, understand, and communicate with a Deaf child.
STS: RNUD partnered with STS on a pilot of an early grade reading sign language assessment where it served as a key technical advisor and provided enumerators. Can you tell me a little more about your role in that project?
Samuel: We [supported] the training of enumerators. And when we were done with the training, the enumerators went to schools to assess the level of sign language and understanding of different things, developing the local tools where you can ask someone to read, write, or sign a word, and Deaf children can write what you were signing. I was a coordinator [for this activity].
STS: Was this the first time to have an assessment like this in Rwanda for Deaf children?
Samuel: Yes, it was the first time. We usually visit and see. We understand the challenges the children have. But it was the first time we did an assessment.
STS: What did you learn from having an assessment for the first time?
Samuel: What I have learned is that Deaf children are late going to school, and they have language deprivation. They lost their language at an early age. It becomes hard to study other languages. Sometimes, when you see a Deaf [child], their English is better. But Kinyarwanda is hard. But why is Kinyarwanda hard for them while we are Rwandans? Remember, the parent doesn’t know English. We are questioning ourselves how Deaf children can know English better than Kinyarwanda, while their parents are using Kinyarwanda. Also, [the children’s] English is not very good. Some Deaf people don’t know how to link sign language with other languages.
And also, what we have [been] shown again is that teachers can sign very little. They can say, “Me, I know sign language.” But [when] you see them, you find that the [teachers] know little.
STS: Do you think there are important learnings that can bring about change from the assessment?
Samuel: You can use that assessment report in different ways in different organizations and government institutions so that the teachers can get more lessons about Rwandan Sign Language. Rwandan basic education books can be changed into sign language videos.
STS: Does your organization collaborate with other organizations of persons with disabilities?
Samuel: First, we meet under an umbrella organization—the National Union of Disability Organizations in Rwanda. We collaborate with the umbrella organization and the different members, and also work with partners like USAID. We can do a workshop with different organizations and see what we can do for people with disabilities. We contribute our ideas and our challenges. In project implementation, we invite one another.
STS: What’s your advice to implementers and donors to include organizations of persons with disabilities more meaningfully when programming inclusive education?
Samuel: I mean [we mainly] advise only. Involve people with disabilities fully—full involvement. Not only to ask for the information, you know, [but] involve them in planning and implementation and give them the budget because the organization will grow when they have that money. Without funds, it is very hard for the organization to grow. It is very hard to appoint a strong team with no funding. But if the funding is available, it allows the organization to become strong and hire a strong team.
STS is grateful for the time Samuel Munana spent with us for this interview and the valuable insights into advocating for Deaf people in Rwanda, and particularly, for the needs of children who are Deaf and the teachers who educate them. Explore more of STS’s work with OPDs to advance inclusive education. This blog is the third in a multi-part series, other posts in the series include an interview with Mr. Justine Barcenas, former president of the Albay Association of the Deaf, in the Philippines.