Malesaoana Esther Mohale, a social worker and sign language interpreter from the Kingdom of Lesotho, a country in southern Africa, recently completed her service as a Mandela Washington Fellow at Gallaudet University and Drexel University, in Philadelphia, Pa. From January through March, Dr. David Penna, professor of government, hosted her virtually during her service as a Fellow. Mohale’s fellowship began in June 2023 when she and five additional fellows attended Gallaudet’s Pre-Institute on ASL and American Deaf Culture program. Led by World Languages and Cultures Instructor Gregoire Youbara, it is designed to prepare Mandela Washington Fellows who are deaf or hard of hearing, and their allies, to be successful in the program through ASL and deaf culture immersion.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is the flagship exchange program of the Young African Leaders Initiative, an initiative of former President Barack Obama and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX, a global development and education organization. 

Mohale holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from the National University of Lesotho. She works as a social worker in the Department of Social Development for the government of Lesotho, providing guidance and counseling services to department trainees with disabilities, and facilitates access to essential medical care and liaises with relevant service providers. She also holds certificates in Lesotho Sign Language and Basic South African Sign Language. Thanks to these skills, her job with the government includes providing sign language interpreting and other services to deaf and hard of hearing trainees, as well as those with other disabilities in various government ministries. She is also a volunteer sign language interpreter for church services and various meetings, training, and workshops.

Woman with long black braids wears a blue button down collared shirt and stands in front of a brick wall
Malesaoana Esther Mohale, a citizen of the Kingdom of Lesotho, served as a Mandela Washington Fellow. In the photo at the top, Gallaudet President Roberta Cordano greets Mohale at a welcome for Pre-Institute on ASL and American Deaf Culture program participants.

While in high school, Mohale met students from a deaf school at an event hosted by her school. The encounter sparked her interest in sign language. “I learned how to fingerspell the alphabet and was eager to learn more,” she said. At the university, she conducted a research project about the challenges faced by students in a vocational school for people with disabilities. Over the course of collecting data, she encountered deaf people again and struggled to communicate with them. “After completing my research project I took it upon myself to learn sign language,” she said. “I enrolled in sign language classes in my hometown in 2013, and my sign language journey has never stopped.”

Word of the Mandela Washington Fellowship came to Mohale from her sister in 2017. She gained more information about the Fellowship and applied for it, although she lacked self confidence. “I was so doubtful of my abilities, I didn’t give it my best [and wasn’t chosen], but in 2022, I gave it more thought and reapplied … I received an invitation in January 2023, then advanced to the finals,” said Mohale. She departed for the U.S. in June 2023.

After completing the pre-institute at Gallaudet, Mohale moved to Philadelphia, where she spent July and August at Drexel with 22 other young African leaders, training in leadership in civic engagement. 

At Gallaudet, Mohale held interviews with professors from the Social Work program, deaf faculty in various disciplines, staff in the Office for Students with Disabilities, and interpreters in Gallaudet Interpreting Service. She also interacted with the 2023-2024 international participants in the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program at American University’s Washington College of Law. They exchanged ideas on the legal frameworks available in the Humphrey Fellows’ countries, and also helped her gain a better understanding of disability law in the U.S. (Note: Humphrey fellows have visited the Gallaudet campus since 2018 to explore ways to work with graduate and undergraduate students who are interested in entering law school after graduation.) Lastly, Mohale gave a lecture to the Government Senior Seminar Class that covered deafness and development in Lesotho; the history of the country’s deaf community, their experiences, and obstacles they face, and exchanged ideas with the students on strategies for overcoming the Lesotho deaf community’s problems.

The latest census count (2016) of Lesotho’s population included 13,300 deaf and hard of hearing people among a population of 2.3 million. According to Mohale, the country has few schools to accommodate deaf students, and the majority who complete their education in vocational institutions or institutes of higher learning struggle to find work or create new jobs. And while the number of trained sign language interpreters in Lesotho increases annually, the need for interpreters remains. The result is a deaf community that continues to face barriers to information access, particularly in rural areas. “Learning sign language is typically more frequent in urban areas, but deaf people who live in remote areas face challenges, which is why they continue to suffer,” said Mohale. Efforts are underway to increase public awareness on issues like inclusivity and the necessity of learning sign language for the hearing population, she said, “but there is still a lot to be done to ensure full participation and engagement for the deaf in all aspects of life.”

As a Mandela Fellow, Mohale said the experience expanded her knowledge of sign language interpreting practices and procedures in the U.S., social workers in a deaf environment, and the American deaf community. She developed professional relationships with American Sign Language interpreters, hearing and deaf social work professionals, and many members of the Gallaudet community. Furthermore, she gained a greater understanding of postsecondary deaf education, particularly in regard to experiences of deaf people in obtaining higher education opportunities and relevant social services, and a better understanding of the support systems available to the U.S. deaf community. 

Mohale said she will use her experiences as a Fellow to advocate for people with disabilities in guaranteeing information access by means of vigorous lobbying. “I hope they will use their right to full involvement and engagement in a range of problems, as this will help them grow into knowledgeable, engaged citizens who make significant contributions to their own development and, ultimately, the development of Lesotho,” she said. She also intends to support the initiatives which the deaf community, through their organizations, runs to guarantee that they have access to possibilities for employment, education, and information. Through numerous exchange programs, Mohale hopes to keep connecting the deaf community in Lesotho with deaf people worldwide in order to continue sharing ideas. She said, “with joint efforts, I wish for the world to be more inclusive of persons with disabilities in general.”

Gallaudet has prepared Deaf Mandela Washington Fellows for their Program in the United States since 2016, when President Roberta Cordano became president of the University. That year, a dinner was held at Gallaudet during the annual Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit for Young African Leaders in Washington, D.C. The event brought together 45 people, including 12 Deaf Fellows, and members from the local Deaf community and African Diaspora. In addition, in the summer of 2016, the campus served as host site for the Gallaudet University Pre-Institute on ASL and American Deaf Culture program, which continues to this day. Every year, Penna hosts at least one Mandela Fellow in person from August through September, then in January he hosts another Fellow virtually. “They are all either deaf or hearing people who work in deaf environments, like Ms. Mohale.” The goal, he said, “is for mutual exchanges of ideas and experiences.”

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