Zimbabwe's language of hope

As political stalemate deepens, a school for the hearing-impaired in an impoverished township shows what's possible.

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My car bumps across a stony track in Sakubva suburb. Like many roads in Zimbabwe, this one is so badly potholed that it looks as if it’s been shelled. Piles of garbage rot in the sun on either side.

Despite the excited chatter of the four preschoolers in the back seat, my thoughts are glum. Lately, I’ve been wondering if my hope in a bright future for Zimbabwe is misplaced.

There was so much hope last February when former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai joined a power-sharing government with longtime President Robert Mugabe. Many Zimbabweans believed that nine years of political and economic turmoil were finally over.

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Ten months on, cracks in the coalition are widening. Mr. Tsvangirai alleges that his supporters are being persecuted. He claims that Mr. Mugabe refuses to share control of the central bank and other government institutions. Mugabe maintains he’s done nothing wrong. In fact, he says Tsvangirai has failed to abide by the unity deal: He hasn’t persuaded the United States and the European Union to lift sanctions on Mugabe and his associates.

I’m indignant and despondent by turns. I long for a fair (and speedy) solution to what looks like a dangerous stalemate. But I’m aware that my Western way of thinking is not shared by everyone. Friends from the ethnic Shona majority urge patience. Like many educated urbanites, most are supporters of Tsvangirai.

“We can’t go backwards now,” they assure me. “Things will be better.”

I checked my e-mail this morning before I left to take my 5-year-old on a class outing, and found disheartening news. An opposition party official had been abducted. State agents had raided the home of a union head. Can my friends really be right?

Our convoy of cars rounds the corner. We reach a gravel parking lot, bordered by freshly mown grass. A welcoming party waits. Each small member wears a hearing aid, a bulky battery strapped to his or her chest, and a huge smile.

My son’s teachers have brought the class to the Nzeve Deaf Children’s Centre in the eastern city of Mutare. Nzeve means “ear” in the Shona language. This project for hearing-impaired preschoolers was started in 2000: now, more than 30 children are enrolled. The visitors crowd under a thatched outdoor shelter and learn how to introduce themselves in sign language.

My son is happy that the sign for his name, Sam, is the same as the sign for simba, which means lion. He and his friends learn to sign “I am a boy,” thumping their chests and pointing to nonexistent beards.

I look up to the hills of Christmas Pass behind the school and feel myself relax.

We troop into a classroom, leaving our shoes outside. The Nzeve Centre is a testament to the power of cheerful hope for children who might otherwise have been denied a chance to learn. Frequent teachers’ strikes and a lack of funding during the crisis took their toll on Zimbabwe’s schools: In 2008, many pupils got less than a month’s worth of lessons. But this institution in the heart of an impoverished township kept functioning. Today there are painted self-portraits on the walls and books neatly filed in boxes. There is even carpet on the floor, an unimaginable luxury for most Zimbabweans.

Sam and his classmates learn that to make the sign for a zebra, you must stroke your stomach with your fingers splayed out, imitating the stripes on the zebra’s coat. If you want to talk about a giraffe, stroke your neck. Swing your forearm in front of your nose to make the sign for an elephant. Their new friends are eager to help, waving their arms to demonstrate the right sign for a rhino.

My son’s class has collected money for weeks to bring presents. It wasn’t easy: Zimbabwe abandoned its worthless local dollar for the greenback early this year, but prices are still way above regional averages. A civil servant’s monthly salary of $150 barely covers his electricity bill. Families have dug deep to fill boxes with bottles of a baobab-flavored drink, bars of soap, and secondhand clothes. There are potato chips and cookies, treats forgotten during the years of empty supermarket shelves. Collen, a boy in a bottle-green pullover, signs excitedly to his headmistress: “It’s like Christmas!”

I watch from the back of the classroom. There are nearly 50 preschoolers in this group. Most are black, but there are five whites, plus a little girl from Goa and a boy whose mother is from Pakistan. Half have hearing difficulties. In theory, there could be much that divides them.

An assistant brings out a bottle of dish detergent bubbles. As the children leap for the cloud of perfect soapy spheres, I know that my faith in Zimbabwe’s future is as strong as ever.

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