I suppose I should be used to it by now. The first week in a new place is always tough for me. Any place, any people, any situation. I always go through the same things, and they always make me question myself and my decisions. People who know me well will know that this post is about being deaf. There's no way around it. Being deaf makes complicated situations more complicated.
I won't lie. My first week in Malawi was rough. Like all the volunteers, I was adjusting to a new place and a demanding schedule and lost luggage (more about that later). But I was also in the position of being the first deaf person most of the people here had ever met, and they really didn't know how to communicate with me.
The volunteers all seemed nice enough. We talked enough to learn each other's names and little more. Of course, I was hoping to talk to the staff to learn as much as possible about wildlife rehabilitation. Instead staff members seemed very frustrated to have me as part of the team. I know they have a very hard job, and that it's challenging to adjust to new volunteers all the time. But I am very serious about this work, and at first staff didn't seem to want to talk with me at all. They got frustrated easily, and they seemed annoyed if I didn't understand them or asked them to repeat themselves. Sometimes it felt like they didn't have any patience or any interest in learning to deal with a deaf person.
That made me very disrespected. I wanted to cry, yell, and swear. I wanted to shout at everybody to let them know that I am an actual human being who happens to be deaf. I know it takes a little extra work to communicate with me, but I also know I can make a contribution if I get a little help.
When I was younger, this would have sent me into a tailspin. Now, I have more perspective. I know that I have to be patient with hearing people. And I really don't want to misrepresent the deaf community by behaving badly. I want to rise above. I know that I'm doing the best I can as a deaf person and I need to give hearing people time to learn how to communicate with me.
I don't need a lot. Having things in writing helps. (I actually think that would help hearing volunteers too.) And people need to face me when they talk. They don't need to talk louder, but it helps if they slow down a little. And they could cut me a little slack if I don't understand something the first time they say it. It takes a little time to learn to lip read a lot of new people.
I got through the first week thinking about my goal. I didn't really come to Africa to make friends, (though I can't help hoping that will happen.) I came to learn more about wildlife rehabilitation. I'm here to help animals, and the animals here are amazing!
We have plenty of volunteers at Lilongwe, so every one of us is assigned one or two animals or projects. I'm currently caring for two baby vervet monkeys named Morrisey and Maymoun. I also make sure one other vervet monkey gets milk every few hours.
At first, I couldn't believe what I was supposed to do as caregiver for a baby vervet. I just sit in the enclosure and let him be. No petting, grabbing, or cuddling of any kind. We do only what a mother monkey would do--letting the babies come to us and then grooming them by acting like we are looking for insects.
The two vervet monkeys are so entertaining--and tiring too! Morrisey is about 5-6 weeks old and Maymoun is maybe a little bit younger. Morrisey loves to cuddle with a towel or blanket when he naps. Maymoun would rather cling to my hand or arm when she sleeps. That makes sense since baby monkeys cling to their mothers when they sleep in the wild.
When it's time to feed the babies, we give them bottles of milk through the fences without handling them. The policies are very strict, because we want to keep the babies wild and not too friendly toward humans. At first it was hard not to pet them because baby monkeys are so freaking adorable! But I agree with the mission at Lilongwe. These animals belong in the wild and we need to do everything we can to get them ready to return to their natural home.
In many ways, I feel like I've returned to my home. Despite all the challenges, I love being back in Africa. And I love being with the animals. Maybe that's because my deafness doesn't bother them at all.