The plan this year was to return to Manila, but last minute problems caused the cancellation of the trip. I instead found a group called Familias Especiales located in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. The nuns that ran the organization needed someone to come volunteer with their deaf adult employees, so I travelled solo for 2 weeks. My assigned job was to build and foster community among the ~10 deaf there, to understand their background and current situations, and to help the organization better understand them. I was additionally supposed to teach Nicaraguan Sign Language (LSN) to a 10 year old child, one young adult, and 2 adults.
This was a lot harder than it sounded. While my Spanish is ok, I didn’t know a single sign in LSN. Elizabeth, one of the Deaf employees who knew LSN, got me up to speed on the basics. Knowing ASL helped a lot, but there were still a lot of signs that were different between the two languages. She was a really great teacher, and I was soon using LSN quite well!
In addition to teaching LSN to some deaf, I also organized what ended up being the first social event for all deaf in Familias Especiales (FE). It was the first time they ever had an event just for them, with no other FE people present other than me. This was also exceedingly difficult because not all of the deaf knew LSN. Some read lips, some signed, some could understand Spanish, and some communicated only through pictures. Therefore, my game had to be engaging and fun, but had to be simple enough to be expressed through those varying communication styles. I did a basic either/or game with pictures, but it ended up that the signers took the game and used the opportunity and secluded event to teach everyone signs. By the end, even those who knew only pictures were able to express their thoughts and feelings through signs. It was wonderful.
I also gave some presentations (in Spanish!) to the organization about what life is like for American Deaf, what opportunities they have for their futures, and how Deaf Americans view themselves. Following that, I was able to meet the mothers of the Deaf employees and talk with them to better understand the beliefs of the community (doctors, priests, families, etc) about many topics including sign language, the causes of deafness, and the best way to educate a deaf child. This was also the first time the mothers had been brought together, and they were able to share their struggles and connect with each other.
Matagalpa doesn’t have a lot of tourist-y sights, but I was able to catch a bus to Jinotega and stop at the local nature preserve, Selva Negra, on the way. The owners are buying back the land surrounding their large coffee plantation to try and reforest what has been slashed and burned. The highlight of my visit there was being able to see Howler Monkeys! (Note: they don’t howl – think more like this.)
When I got back, I could read Spanish fluently for a few weeks, but the effects gradually (and sadly) wore off.