A previous version of this article was published with a language error: ‘Deaf’ was spelled with a lower case ‘d’. This article refers to the Deaf community as a whole and the difference Kerrin Kokot and Jayne Batzofin are making in encouraging a love of storytelling among the Deaf community in South Africa.
Carla Lever recently conducted an interview with filmmakers, storytellers and language activists Kerrin Kokot and Jayne Batzofin for Nal’ibali’s weekly column. The three of them discussed Kerrin and Jayne’s latest TV project focused on nurturing a love of storytelling among Deaf children, the education opportunities for Deaf children in South Africa, and heartwarming stories of working with Deaf children.
Your latest TV project and envisaged accompanying book for Deaf children – Let’s Pretend With Fumi and Friends – is pretty groundbreaking in South Africa. Can you tell us a little about the story?
KK: In extraordinary storyteller Jay’s home, a curious rabbit called Fumi discovers how to use its imagination to help make-believe creatures solve problems and, by doing so, learns valuable life skills.
JB: Let’s Pretend with Fumi and Friends is a world where stories come to life through imagination and sign language, and problems are solved through creativity and team-work.
What stage of development is Fumi at?
KK: The first project phase (concept development) is complete. We developed everything with Deaf education partners and a television script editor and adapted the story concepts and artworks with feedback from children. Those visuals would feed straight into our visual if we ran a book later.
We’re now in project development stage, working with excellent film and education partners to finalise the project and distribution plan, budget and schedule. Our partners are helping us raise finance for production, as well as a training programme to upskill Deaf animators, designers and other production staff. It’s incredibly exciting!
In your experience, Jayne, what are education options and resources like for Deaf children in South Africa?
JB: In the last few years there has been a strong focus to develop teachers’ signing skills and capacity by organisations like SLED (Sign Language Education Development). Sign language resources are still incredibly limited for choice and often outdated in material, though. Deaf children deserve as much variety as hearing children.
Are there enough qualified SASL teachers in South Africa?
JB: For me, we really need more qualified teachers who are Deaf themselves. I watch Deaf teaching assistants make huge progress with children because they share the same mother tongue language, but because of the way our education system is structured, they don’t have the means to qualify as teachers.
How are you using your skills to tackle the problem?
JB: In addition to Fumi, I’m using theatre productions and drama exercises to create playful resources as alternative tools to developing sign language literacy. How dull to only learn a language in a formal classroom setting! Language is learned through acquisition, which is strengthened when taught in a variety of mediums.
Are there any unique considerations to bear in mind when creating literacy resources for Deaf children?
KK: Deaf children seldom get development in creativity and abstract thinking skills – learning is often extremely functional. SLED (Sign Language Education and Development) pushed us to develop unique tools within the programme to boost those skills and animation is a great fit for doing that.
Kerrin, you’ve got tons of experience in making stories visually compelling and fun. What have the challenges been in conceptualising this kind of project?
KK: One of the challenges has been making this series accessible to Deaf children around the world. Sign language is like any language: It is specific to regions. A South African Sign Language (SASL) programme won’t be easily understood by, say, British Deaf audiences, who use British Sign Language (BSL). To combat this, we’ve made the most expensive parts of the production – the animated parts – universally accessible. The show’s live-action presenter, the only character that communicates in sign language, can be sourced regionally and inserted into the animated world using relatively inexpensive post-production techniques.
Jayne, are there any moments working with Deaf children over the years that you’ve found particularly heartwarming?
JB: So many! Obviously the children when they laugh or light up from within because adults besides their teachers are signing with them. But I also love watching the teachers be amazed by how bright and creative their students can be when given a different way to learn sign language.
How can people find out more and get involved with Fumi?
KK: We’d love to share resources with, and learn from, other organisations seeking to promote Deaf literacy. Please get in touch on email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Fans can follow the project on Facebook: @fumiandfriends.
Why is storytelling so important – for adults, as well as children?
KK: Adults and children gain valuable skills through storytelling: language, social, abstract, conceptual, and so many more. Stories are integral to human society, shaping our worldviews, our very existence. A world without stories would be a world of robots!
JB: It evokes and develops imagination, creativity and fantasy! These skills are of fundamental importance in childhood (and literacy) development, and equally essential for adults to connect with each other and their often neglected playful selves.
Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit: www.nalibali.org.