ISAAC PHIRI and KAPALA CHISUNKA, Lusaka
FOR most people, Francis Phiri’s tale can read as ‘a rag to riches’ story but that is his reality.
The challenges that he has been through most of his 30 years on earth could have had anybody give up on their dreams of attaining an education. But Francis refused to succumb to life’s challenges.
Francis recalls being brought up in Lusaka’s George township in an impoverished household. His community, according to him was equally poor. There seemed to be no way out. Unfortunately, at the age of 12, Francis became deaf after he was attacked by malaria. This predicament brought trials, which not only affected him, but his family and the community at large.
“My family was completely confused and scared about my condition. They did not know what to do with me. In most Zambian communities, people do not understand the deaf culture and they usually shun such individuals,” Francis laments.
Fortunately for him, one of his relatives, embraced him and adopted him at the age of 15, after his parents died.
He says his aunty, whom he identifies as Sophia, sponsored his education and provided basic necessities. His life seemed to take a turn for the better because his dream of being in school was slowly taking shape.
“When I lost my sense of hearing, I usually questioned why it had to happen to me. I wasted so much time focusing on my problem, than anything else. But I realised feeling pity for me wasn’t going to change the situation.
I decided to change my perceptive from ‘why me?’ to ‘try me’,” he says.
Francis says her aunt later relocated from Lusaka to Nyimba in the Eastern Province and a dark cloud hovered over his education as there was no school for the deaf in the area.
But as luck would have it, Francis met a teacher from Munyazi Basic School in Chipata.
“He is the one who told me about Magwelo School in Chipata. It is the first school established for the deaf in Zambia. I was pleasantly surprised to hear about it,” Francis recalls.
When he got to Magwelo, Francis was amused how deaf people freely went about their lives, just like able-bodied persons.
“I realised that people who are deaf can also have a normal life and participate in all school activities such as sports. For the first time in many years, I was excited about my education. My perspective changed, I fell in love with learning,” he says.
In Grade Nine, Francis was appointed head boy at Magwelo School and he describes his experience as amazing.
In 2006, Francis was enrolled at Munali Secondary School but unfortunately, in 2007, he lost his aunt and this development had a negative impact on his education.
“I had to stop school when my aunt died. It was during this trying moment that i met a Mr Mbewe at Mulungushi International Conference Centre (MICC) during the National Constitution Conference. He was a sign language instructor, who was observing the deliberations,” Francis recollects.
Mr Mbewe, who represented the Association of Sign Language Interpreters of Zambia (ASLIZ), learnt of Francis’s predicament and assured him of assistance.
Francis’s association with Mr Mbewe and ASLIZ eventually paid off as it was during one of the workshops organised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that his dream to continue his education was resuscitated.
“At the workshop, I learnt about child labour and that being out of school was another form of child labour. I approached a lady from ILO by the name of Maria Malila. She saw how passionate I was about my education that she resolved to sponsor my education from Grade 11 to 12. She paid my tuition fees, including lodging at the dormitory and catered for basic necessities. I knew I had to give it my best because it was a golden opportunity to complete my secondary education,” he says.
Francis recalls how during school holidays, he would remain at the school dormitory because he had no permanent residence.
He also took advantage of the holidays to work part-time at ASLIZ to raise pocket money.
Francis recalls how he met another good samaritan by the name of Frank Lester, an American volunteer with Peace Corps.
“I met Frank at Munali. He was also deaf and was teaching at the school as part of his project with Peace Corp. I was surprised when I realised he’s deaf.
“Seeing Frank awoke something in me because I realised that being deaf is not a limiting factor to make friends,” he says with a smile.
A few months before he completed his Grade 12, Frank approached Francis and offered to pay for his college education in America.
“When he asked about my plans after Grade 12, I told him it all depended on my results. He asked if I was interested in travelling to America. I was shocked and asked him how he expected a poor person like myself to go to America because I had no money. But he offered to pay for my education. I immediately said yes,” he says.
In 2008, after high school, Frank invited Francis to Kenya, where he was training some Peace Corps volunteers.
While in Kenya, Francis was introduced to a whole new world of possibilities on the programmes for deaf people.
“That is where my dream started about my organisation; I wanted Zambia to have the same Peace Corp volunteer programmes because I’m a beneficiary,” he says.
In August 2009, Francis left for America and was enrolled at Ohlone Community College in California, where he studied American Sign Language and deaf studies. After four years, he graduated with an associate degree.
“I then got a full scholarship to Rochester Institute of Technology to study information technology. The scholarship was under a Japanese organisation called Sasakawa, which supports developing countries. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in information technology,” he says.
Upon completion, Francis returned to Ohlone and decided to make a career switch by pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education and social work at San Francisco State University.
Born on March 18, 1988 in Lusaka, Francis currently works full-time as an American sign-language instructor as well as a football coach at Mid-Peninsula High School; a private high school.
“My organisation, Give Back to Community (GBCZ) in America, gives back to communities in Zambia. My goal is to provide training here in Zambia. We are planning a leadership retreat sometime between June and August this year. We want support from civil society organisations as well as the Zambian government,” he says.
The organisation also aims to improve access to deaf education in Zambia and this requires teachers with a passion for the deaf to master the sign language, history of the deaf and the deaf culture.
“This means we have to work with the Ministry of Education because there is need to introduce a degree programme in deaf education. We need specialised teaching for people living with hearing impairment,” he says.
Fourth in a family of five, Francis, who was recently in the country, says his visit to Zambia was fruitful as he was able to meet with officials from the Peace Corps and discussed his organisation’s plan to partner with them.
“My organisation wants to assist new volunteers become better teachers for the deaf and improve education for the deaf in Zambia,” Francis says.
Francis is married to an American woman and has two children from his previous relationship in Zambia.