Independent Appeal: Where talk isn't cheap

ActionAid, one of our appeal charities, is helping fund a school in Congo that teaches deaf children how to communicate.
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'I'm not coming back until the boy can speak." With that brutal goodbye, the man turned his back on his wife and infant son – and walked out of their lives.

Five years later, Yannick Masika still struggles to enunciate even the most basic words. Trying to say "Mama", his voice is alternately squeaky and croaky, exertion and self-consciousness written on his face. The word is almost strangled in his throat before, finally, it escapes. His mother's proud smile conveys the importance of this seemingly humble achievement. But it has not been enough to bring the boy's father home.

Life has dealt seven-year-old Yannick a rum hand. He was born in the eastern city of Goma in the closing stages of Congo's war, a conflict that claimed the lives of many relatives. In his short life, he has survived the devastating eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, cholera epidemics, and militia clashes. On top of that, Yannick is deaf in a place where rudimentary, let alone specialised, healthcare is hard to find.

His mother, Madeleine – abandoned by her husband and trying to scrape by on her meagre washerwoman's salary – feared the worst for her son. "He used to be totally mute," she said. "We couldn't communicate at all. I worried about what sort of future he could possibly have."

Then she discovered the Ephata school for the deaf. It is not much to look at: a collection of wooden huts that let in water during the rainy season. Yet for a quarter of a century, this school has been transforming the lives of deaf children in a troubled corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo. And thanks to ActionAid, one of the three charities being supported by The Independent's Christmas Appeal this year, it is about to get a makeover.

Ephata is the only school for the deaf in the whole of North Kivu, a province twice the size of former colonial power Belgium. When it opened in 1985, there were just nine pupils; today there are 169, with some coming from more than 130 miles away. It is overcrowded, as a result, but this month construction will start on six purpose-built classrooms.

"It will make all the difference," says John Gakuru, head of the school's primary section. "Our children aren't stupid. Our dilapidated buildings reinforce their sense that they are worth less than others. The new building, which will hopefully be finished by next Christmas, will give them a sense of pride."

When they start at Ephata, many of the children cannot utter a word; their parents mistakenly believe them to be mute. Usually, it is simply the case no one has taught them to talk. It falls to reception teacher, Kahindo Willy, to set them on the path to speech and give them a crash course in sign language. The 52-year-old is deaf herself; she lost her hearing in her twenties after meningitis. "The children often don't know their names when they arrive in school, so that's the thing we start with," Ms Willy says. "Then we teach them the names of the things they eat. Before they would just mime general 'eating' but now they can be more specific."

Rosette, four, is hopping excitedly on the spot, eager to demonstrate. Shown a crudely drawn picture of a fish, the little girl flaps her left hand against her right like a fin. Later, we meet her older brother and sister, Claude and Florence. Although neither parent is deaf, all three siblings were born unable to hear and the school has been a lifeline for the family.

As it has for six-year-old Zakayo. His mother is one of thousands of Congolese women to have suffered during the region's many violent convulsions. After being brutally raped, she fell pregnant with Zakayo. Without the school, it is doubtful whether this traumatised woman would have coped.

Today her son is showing off his penmanship, copying "tomato" with a neat, careful hand into his pink exercise book. Does he like coming to school? "Yes." What is his favourite part? "Going home and playing football." His teacher shakes his head in mock despair. "Oh, and the food."

In a country where the average income is 40 US cents a day, the free lunches (today it's beans and mashed plantain) can be a bigger draw than the classes. "When we shut for the holidays, we sometimes get children not wanting to go home, because school is their main source of food," says Mr Gakuru. "But as long as something is bringing them here and ensuring they get an education..."

The school had been largely church-funded until April 2007 when it came to the attention of ActionAid. The charity's education rights co-ordinator, Muteho Kasongo, was attending a conference where an Ephata pupil delivered an impassioned speech in sign language.

"It touched me so much," she says. "He spoke about how deaf children had the right to an education too, how they needed people to translate what was happening in the world. He spoke about seeing people fleeing during the war but having no idea why."

Now 15 and an aspiring actor, Fabien Morisho is thrilled his five minutes on the podium have resulted in the new school building, but says there is still discrimination. "We still get called 'deaf boy' as if we didn't have names of our own. Some parents tell their kids not to play with us 'unfortunates'. Others think we're mad."

Although ActionAid is providing the £49,000 funding for the new school, toilet block and office, it delegated responsibility for the construction to the parents. "This way, if ActionAid were to leave, the local community has been empowered to do it for themselves in the future," says Ms Kasongo. "The parents also know the hard work that has gone into making it happen so they are more disposed to maintaining it."

Perhaps the school's greatest success story is Eric Kambale. The 24-year-old is the first pupil to have passed the university entrance exam. He can't afford a sign-language interpreter and relies on friends to share their lecture notes. Deeply grateful, he spends several mornings a week back at his alma mater teaching maths and history. "If it weren't for this place," he says, "I would have remained an ignorant idiot."

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