By JOYCE KIMANI
January 20,2017, Nairobi. When Catherine Atieno was told of a Naivasha-based flower farm that was hiring deaf workers she embarked on the long journey from Siaya in Western Kenya to try her luck. She had suffered discrimination as a deaf with potential employers snubbing her immediately they realized she couldn’t hear.
Open to all possibilities she arrived at the Oserian Development Company front office desk without an appointment but was pleasantly surprised when she was warmly received by staff who could communicate in sign language.
The 24 year- old immediately felt at home as she explained the purpose of the visit. She had been referred by a deaf friend and was looking for an opportunity. Four years down the line Catherine hasn’t stopped smiling and vividly remembers her journey as a fresh high school graduate that landed her at Oserian where she works in the flower farm’s pack house.
“I live a comfortable life and can provide food, clothes and shelter for my one and a half year-old son,” she said. “In the village, when they realized I was deaf, I was ignored and people refrained from employing me for fear I would underperform. In fact, most companies shunned us claiming that we would be a bother due to the communication challenge. However, the quality of our work has proven them wrong,” she added.
She has enrolled and completed a computer course and is planning to enroll for a secretarial course to acquire skills in preparation to apply for an office job when the company opens up the opportunity.
Catherine is among some 70 deaf workers at Oserian in the various departments of the expansive farm that has employed about 4,500 people. The special workers play a crucial role in value chain of the one million stems the company exports every day.
Zavedi Kagoki, 44, and Charles Kamunyu,50, a deaf couple, have worked in the farm for more than ten years. Kagoki works in the packaging department while Kamunyu is in the building department. Kagoki said the company gave them an opportunity to discover their talents and skills especially by encouraging them to participate in co-curricular activities.
“We are always encouraged to participate in sports especially athletics and football tournaments which have enabled some of our deaf colleagues to even participate in International Olympics for international athletics,” she added.
Kagoki added that many had initially suffered from low self-esteem due to their condition but were now comfortable. “They gave us the opportunity to understand that even though we are different we have something important to offer to the world,” she added. Their four children have been educated by the Oserian. “Our first born who is currently in high school has been fully sponsored by the company,” said Kamunyu.
Doris Atieno, who has worked at the farm for four years said the lack of papers did not hinder the company from employing them. “Most companies shun away deaf people because of their economic credentials yet many are too poor to further their education. Oserian did not insist on academic papers but instead gave us the opportunity to work after which we were able to seek further education,” she added.
Oserian Head of Human resources Mary Kinyua appreciates the deaf community which describes as one of the most productive as they give full attention to their work without any detractions. “These are the kind of workers every employer should hire.
They work with one accord paying full attention to their work. They don’t talk or hear so they work fully”, Mary said with admiration and pride adding that they place a premium on their jobs knowing it’s not easy for them to secure employment.
Most of the deaf workers are in the pack house where they grade package flowers. According to Mary, flowers are delicate and require a special touch, the station doesn’t involve lots of movement making it easier for them to work. “We try to make their lives as easy as possible, reason we also house them in the company estate,” She said.
The oldest one has served in the company for 14 years and has scooped the best employee award for 13 consecutive years. They are an integral part of us and we include them in every way possible,” she said adding the deaf corner produces the best workers every year.
Mary added that most of them had enrolled in various colleges to undergo different courses as a means of boosting skills.
“Their passion and zeal is amazing as most want to further their education despite many of them having basic certificates only,”she added. She added that most of the deaf were recruited on recommendation basis by their colleagues.
Even though they have 26 trained interpreters based in every department they were increasing the number to create efficient communication. Kinyua said that they have rolled out a project to ensure that the various departmental heads are trained in the Kenya sign language as a move made to improve communication with the deaf to respect their privacy”, she said.
The deaf are represented in all farm committees like gender, Fairtrade and social welfare programmes. Mary disclosed these workers are in the process of setting up income generating projects to diversify income through Fairtrade premiums and cooperative loans. “We are an ethical company and we believe in giving an equal opportunity to all people as part of our affirmative action.” she added.
In addition, the deaf are not turned away despite a clear notice at the gate warning visitors are only attended to on appointment. Mary throws banter to employers to create opportunities for special needs people as a policy. “This is one of the most rewarding ways to improve the society,” she says.