Adamorobe, The Deaf Community in West Africa that Developed Its Own Indigenous Sign Language

Adamorobe sign language/Photo credit: StoryMine

Adamorobe, a town in Ghana’s West African nation, is known as the “deaf community” because of a high prevalence of a genetic kind of deafness. But, in the aftermath of the misfortunes of life, the community has discovered a unique solution to normalize their hereditary condition by inventing their own sign language, which has been accepted by both deaf and hearing individuals in the hamlet. This is not the same as the formal standard sign language used in deaf schools.

This is not the only obstacle that the deaf residents have faced. In order to minimize the number of deaf people in Adamorobe, one of the chiefs enacted a decree prohibiting marriage between deaf people in 1961. This law only succeeded in jeopardizing the linguistic and cultural threads that held the society together. The survival of sign language is dependent on the perception of deaf people as productive and important members of society.

In recent years, urbanization has posed a new threat to the existence of the Adamorobe people. The increased need for stones to feed the construction sector has given rise to a new business enterprise at the village’s entrance. Tonnes of stones are transported from an open quarry in Adamorobe, generating concerns that these outsiders would contaminate the deaf community’s culture. One of the people’s prized practices is to take a break from laboring on the land on Thursdays to allow the earth goddess to rest, allowing the people to trade in products grown from the farms during that time.

According to Stan Dery, a deaf education specialist, the genetic condition that the people suffer from is what distinguishes the deaf population. One explanation for this problem is the idea that the town was once ruled by a spiritual deaf god who rendered the community’s offspring deaf if their parents displeased him. The caretaker of the deaf deity dances when she is possessed, as recounted in an unrhythmic manner.

According to another tale, there is a creek on the outskirts of town whose water is not intended for domestic use, and townfolk are not supposed to step in on certain days. People who violate this taboo end up having deaf children.

The third interpretation was that the community’s deafness was the consequence of the work of a handsome enthusiastic deaf young man who moved into town. Regardless of his situation, every female wanted to marry him. This visitor is thought to have planted the seed of deafness in the town, a curse that has passed down through generations of Adamorobe people.

The fourth and final legend states that the Adamorobes fought a war with a neighboring village. The people sought the help of the totems in order to win the war. Following the conflict, the animals refused to revert to their former shape, instead manifesting as deaf children.

Victoria Anna Sophie Nyst explained in her paper, A Descriptive Analysis of Adamorobe Sign Language in Ghana, that research conducted by Sir Alexander Drummond in 1961 revealed that the cause of the community’s inhabitation by deaf people is its magnetic nature, which continuously attracts the same like-minded people. A subsequent medical survey revealed that the deafness in the community is genetic rather than the result of deaf persons migrating to Adamorobe.

To cope with their situation, they developed the Adamorobe Sign language, which is intermingled with the indigenous Akan language – with sign language to allow deaf and hearing people to interact smoothly. One of the most exciting aspects of this unusual language is that hearing persons can use sign language as well. The language, according to oral tradition, was formed in the 18th century and differs from what is taught in deaf schools today.

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