IT WAS a typical West African morning. The aroma of boiling sauces and rice wafted through the air. Women walked by with unbelievable loads balanced on their heads. The sound of hearty laughter mingled with fierce bargaining. The sun quickly whitened into a blaze.
Upon seeing a Yovo, or white person, a group of children swung into their usual song and dance. The song started with “Yovo, Yovo, bon soir” and ended with “How about a gift for the performance?” One boy was not singing. As I continued on my way, he followed me and began to gesture with his hands. It looked like sign language. In the United States, I had learned to spell in American Sign Language (ASL), but Benin is a French-speaking country.
I struggled to sign the eight letters of my name. The boy’s face exploded into a smile. He grabbed my hand and guided me through some narrow streets to his home, a typical two-room cinder-block dwelling. His family flocked around. Everyone was signing. Now what? I signed my name and then wrote a note saying that I was a missionary who taught the Bible and that I would come back. Some hearing neighbors joined in, all nodding approval. ‘What did I get myself into?’ I thought.
Back home I pondered, ‘There must be someone who could help these people learn about God’s promise: “The very ears of the deaf ones will be unstopped.”’ (Isaiah 35:5) I did some research. A recent census had counted 12,000 known deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Benin. My eyes widened when I discovered that ASL, not French Sign Language, was used in the schools for the deaf. But how sad to find that not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses here knew ASL. Sighing, I said to a local Witness, “I wish someone who knew ASL would come and help.” She replied, “You’re here, aren’t you?” She was right! I ordered a self-help book and the DVDs in ASL published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. My prayers for help were answered when a Witness who knew ASL well moved from Cameroon to Benin.
Word of my endeavor spread. I was told I should visit Brice, a sign painter. His atelier, or workshop, made of palm fronds sewn together was refreshingly airy in the steamy climate. Years of his cleaning paint brushes had given the walls a rainbow of colors. He dusted off a couple of stools and stared at me, waiting for me to begin. I slid a DVD into my portable player. He dragged his stool closer to the small screen. “I understand! I understand!” he signed. Neighborhood children gathered and craned their necks to see. One blurted out, “Why are they watching a movie without sound?”
Each time I returned to see Brice, the huddle around the DVD player grew larger. Soon Brice and others began coming to our Christian meetings. Trying to interpret for them aided my progress. As the group grew, some even came looking for me. For example, one day my old car grunted and groaned in protest as I hit potholes while trying to avoid stray goats and pigs. Then there was a sudden bang from the rear. ‘Oh, no,’ I thought to myself, ‘not another breakdown!’ No, it was a deaf man running after my car and trying to get my attention the best way he could—by banging on my car!
ASL groups developed in other cities. When sign-language sessions were organized at our annual convention, I was among those asked to interpret. As I stepped onto the platform and waited for the speaker to begin, for a moment my thoughts went back to when I first started in my assignment. I used to think, ‘What more could I do as a missionary in Africa?’ Looking at the audience, I knew that I had found the answer—be a missionary who helps the deaf. I no longer ask myself, ‘What did I get myself into?’