A new and promising partnership that aims to promote opportunities for an improved quality of life for deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind people in Ethiopia was launched on December 18, 2023 with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Gallaudet University and the Republic of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Women and Social Affairs (MoWSA). This landmark partnership expands Gallaudet’s global efforts to enhance education, training, and official recognition of sign language in Africa’s two most populous countries – Nigeria and Ethiopia, respectively. Moreover, the Gallaudet community will reap benefits from learning about life in Africa.

Provost Khadijat Rashid, ’90, welcomed the guests who witnessed the official beginning of this historic partnership in a signing ceremony hosted by the Office of International Affairs and held in the National Deaf Life Museum, the site of a similar MOU ceremony that took place in November 2019. The earlier MOU signing ceremony involved Wesley University (Ondo City, Nigeria), the Nigerian National Association of the Deaf, and Gallaudet, that lead to a groundbreaking program known as Gallaudet in Nigeria-Africa (GAIN), and in 2021, the three-year United States Agency for International Development grant-funded Strengthening Deaf Education, Empowerment, & Employment (Deaf-E3).

“As a deaf woman I am proud to move forward with this collaboration,” Provost Rashid said of Gallaudet’s latest partnership. She emphasized that the University’s role in the MOU is to share its knowledge and experience to help Ethiopia find ways to achieve equity and inclusion for its estimated 4.5 million deaf population.

MoWSA Minister H. E. Dr. Ergogie Tesfaye called the partnership “a testament to our shared commitment and vision to create a more accessible, equitable and inclusive society for all, where they can enjoy human rights and dignity, and contribute to the social and economic development of our countries.” 

Scanning the audience gathered to witness this historic occasion, President Roberta J. Cordano paused in her address to note that she was taken by the large number of the individuals present that are Ethiopian students, alumni, and employees of Gallaudet — all of whose lives had been changed by a Gallaudet education that prepared them for future success. “This room is proof of what is possible,” she said. To illustrate her point, she mentioned Afomia Mac, a Gallaudet alumna from Ethiopia, who recently went on to earn a Doctor of Pharmacy degree at Howard University.

Two women stand behind a table draped with a blue cloth that reads "Gallaudet University." There is a large American flag on the left, and a small one on the table in front of the woman on the left. There is a large Ethiopian flag to the right and a small Ethiopian flag on the table in front of the woman on the right. Both women are holding red folders in front of their chests.
Gallaudet President Roberta J. Cordano (left) and the Republic of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Women and Social Affairs Minister H. E. Dr. Ergogie Tesfaye (right) celebrate the signing of a new Memorandum of Understanding.

“Ethiopia’s success is the world’s success,” said Cordano, adding that the foundation of success that has been laid for deaf Ethiopians will grow stronger, thanks to the MOU signed into action that day, and will serve as a call to action in other African countries to improve life for their deaf communities. “You are leading the way,” said Cordano; “as president, you have my full support.” Thanks to her legal background, holding a Juris Doctor degree, Cordano said she is well positioned to advocate for the rights of deaf people in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa, the foremost being the right to use their native sign language.

President Cordano’s message of optimism of how the partnership will improve the lives of deaf Ethiopians through education and recognition of sign language was shared by Minister Tesfaye. “The signing of this MOU is like a rebirth of deaf education in Ethiopia,” which was started in 1963 by U.S. missionaries, said Tesfaye. She proudly noted that at the higher education level, Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University has the highest enrollment of deaf students in Africa. 

Partnering with Gallaudet “will definitely have a paramount significance in education, linguistics and socio-cultural issues,” said Tesfaye. It is her hope that more deaf, hard of hearing, deafblind — and also hearing students — will have increased opportunities, thanks to the partnership, as well as lead to more research and documentation of Ethiopian Sign Language. Ultimately, these improvements in education and communication will give rise to enrichment of deaf culture and employment opportunities that contribute to nation building, said Tesfaye. “This is where our partnership with Gallaudet University comes in,” said Tesfaye, calling Gallaudet “a pioneer and a leader in providing inclusive and accessible education for persons with disabilities, especially those who are hard of hearing, deaf and deafblind.” In closing, the MoWSA minister said she hopes the partnership “will serve as a model and an inspiration for other universities. I look forward to working closely with you in the implementation and monitoring of this MOU, and to seeing the positive outcomes and impacts that it will bring to the lives of persons with disabilities and to the development of our countries” in Africa.

Biruk Tesfaye, an Ethiopian student in Gallaudet’s Business Administration program and a recipient of the highly competitive Gallaudet-Nippon World Deaf Leadership scholarship, spoke on behalf of deaf Ethiopians in urging Minister Tesfaye and other Embassy of Ethiopia officials present to lobby their government for recognition of the country’s sign language, and thereby improve communication access. He praised Gallaudet for the opportunities he has been afforded, thanks to his scholarship, and said that he reflects “on how my studies can help deaf Ethiopian people,” especially in communication issues, when he returns home to share his knowledge, as required of WDL scholars.

Serving as project coordinators for the MOU are Gallaudet’s Center for Black Deaf Studies (CBDS) co-directors Evon Black, ’87 & G-’96, and Lindsay Dunn, ’85, with support from the Office of International Affairs led by Charles Reilly. In this role they will function as academic, research, curricula, and program development specialists for guidance and support on the vision and strategy aspects of the project, and will be available to share their experiences and knowledge from their work in CBDS to assist MoWSA in creating a similar facility in Ethiopia. Black said that CBDS is proud to be part of what she called a “legacy creation.” Dunn called CBDS, which shares information and resources about the culture, language, art, and other aspects of black deaf people, “a space where magic happens.” He said that he and Black “truly look forward to working with (Ethiopia),” and hopes that the future success from the MOU will spread and take root throughout the African continent.

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