Are There Silent Voices or Is There a Deaf World?

On the Ontological Nature of Voicelessness

Father Benedict Dada Zele

Department of Education, The Catholic University of Malawi

It is not uncommon to hear reformers, civil rights activists, and change agents saying that
they are the voices of the voiceless. This article probes the ontological nature of
voicelessness. It speculates that those whom people categorize as voiceless may not be
voiceless per se. They may be speaking loudly and wildly but the deaf world fails to grasp
their speech.

As a ray of light, the article uses umunthu, a Malawian outlook on life that comprehends,
encompasses, and encapsulates humanness. As a representative group of the “voiceless
community” the article meditates upon the experiences of community day secondary school
(CDSS) learners. Are the oppressed populations such as CDSS learners voiceless OR is the
world deaf? These are epistemological questions challenging how we come to know about
the lived realities (ontologies) of the voiceless. Could the ontologies be misaligned because
the epistemologies have defects? Certainly, for research to be relevant and for change to be
effective, epistemologies ought to be congruent with ontologies.

The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie narrates about the danger of a single story
in a TED talk. She posits that “start the story with the arrows of Native Americans, and not
with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the

failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you
have an entirely different story”. In this case starting the story with the voicelessness of
oppressed populations generates a story that is entirely different from starting the story with
the deafness of the world. Those who start reform, advocacy, and activism with voicelessness
of impacted communities may have an entirely different approach from those who start with
deafness of the world.

Furthermore, educational scholars argue that people should not speak about an achievement
gap but talk about the opportunity gap. Think of the glaring disparities in funding between
national schools and CDSSs both of which fall under the umbrella of public schools. Starting
a story with achieving schools and non-achieving schools generates an entirely different story
from one that begins with inequalities in funding, dichotomies in school leadership,
contrasting teaching staff, and glaring disparities in the social economic status of learners,
parents, and the communities. Gradually, one begins to realize that as people celebrate the
achievement of one set of schools, they are celebrating inequalities and gulfs in opportunities.

Educational scholars also contend that people must not talk about learners dropping out of
school but must instead speak about schools pushing learners out of school. The picture of a
girl from an economically struggling household who walks for over an hour to Wakulawatha
(pseudonym) CDSS, has no textbooks and lacks adequate stationery, finds demotivated and
untrained teachers, and is disparaged by the community is one that is common experience to
Malawians. Should the girl decide to discontinue with the unrewarding schooling, should she
be considered a drop out or should people say she has been pushed out of school?

Thomas Kuhn, who introduced the expression paradigm shift says all thinking including tools
which are used for investigations and solutions that people provide are dependent on the
paradigm. Sexists whose paradigm is that women are weak think totally different from
feminists whose paradigm is that men oppress women. Thinking of Malawi as a poor country
generates a story that may be entirely different from thinking of Malawi as an exploited
country. Thinking of villagers as illiterate and antithetical to development generates an
entirely different story from thinking of politicians and other bureaucrats who find illiteracy
and poverty an opportunity for profiteering. Thinking of adolescents as risk prone
troublemakers generates an entirely different story from that of neuroscientists and
psychologists who view adolescents as mysterious beings undergoing quirky brain
development in need of connection, guidance, and love.

Traditionally, as the village woman prepared flour by grinding maize with a mortar and a
pestle, she sang songs. The songs expressed her understanding of an ideal family and society.
The songs expressed dissatisfaction with how her deaf world could not comprehend her
position in family and society. Oppressed people speak. In his Second World Day of the Poor
message, pope Francis ponders on Psalm 34:6, “this poor man cried, and the Lord heard
him”. The Supreme Pontiff is puzzled “how it is that this cry, which rises to the presence of
God, is unable to penetrate our ears and leaves us indifferent and impassive”. One can
therefore interrogate if cries of the suffering and marginalized peoples which reach God need
a megaphone to reach those who live very proximal to the suffering and marginalized. Must
activists and reformers amplify the voices of the marginalized or set out to shatter the
deafness of the world?

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