One woman’s inspiring sign language interpreting skills

Tuesday December 3 2019

Gisele Emerusenge, a sign language translator

Gisele Emerusenge, a sign language translator who has travelled widely around the world wherever her skills are required. She graduates in December in sign language interpretation, which she has loved since early childhood. PHOTO | Kelly Rwamapera 

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She started getting employed in sign language interpretation as a teenager in secondary school. At 25 now, she has travelled to more than a dozen countries around the globe.

This is the story of a young woman who started learning sign language in order to be able to communicate with a deaf age-mate in her neighbourhood, interpreted for her in school until organisations started hiring her for sign language interpretation.

When Gisele Emerusenge was growing up in Kicukiro, Kigali, she found a namesake Gisele in the neighbourhood who was deaf.

“I found good company in her and would spend hours with her just silent, gesturing and smiling,” Ms Emerusenge told Rwanda Today.

Unfortunately, the two separated when Gisele was taken to Gatagara school for the deaf in Southern Province and the Emerusenge stayed in Kigali for the entire primary school years.
In 2006, Ms Emerusenge was admitted to Groupe Scholaire de Butare, which is close to Gatagara where Gisele was.

“I got to meet several other deaf people but what surprised me was that sign languages varied from place to place and I started trying several of them,” Ms Emerusenge said.
But Gatagara teaches a Kinyarwanda sign language for the deaf that anyone who didn’t study there would not understand.


“This is why it is important for all the hearing-impaired to go to a deaf school because you will find that there are several deaf people who do not know the language of the deaf,” she added.

Both Gisele and Emerusenge joined Apade Secondary School in Kigali because there was no A-level at Gatagara.

“At Apade, there were two other deaf students and I was in the middle of them all,” she adds.

The school administration discovered that Emerusenge was good at communicating with the deaf and started using her to interpret sign language to teachers and vice versa.

“The school community relied on me to interpret what the deaf were saying and the deaf needed me to interpret what teachers and other students were saying.”

Family interference

Ms Emerusenge needed her agemates to have fun as girls their age would but it did not go well. “I was with the three deaf girls, concerned with their problems. Their conversations and perceptions mirrored mine.”

At Apade, Ms Emerusenge had to interpret scientific and mathematical concepts to the girls who could not hear.

“I had to find a way of expressing mathematical and scientific concepts in simple sign language and found myself coming up with signs not known before, but that they could understand.”

But in 2011, the National Union of the Deaf had noticed Emerusenge and started hiring her.
“There were very few sign language interpreters and none of them was qualified. The National Union of the Deaf started inviting me several times to interpret and would pay me.”

During her 2011/2012 vacation, Ms Emerusenge was already making money from sign language interpretation from these invitations.

“As I was preparing for university, several people I worked with in sign language activities asked me to take up a degree in the profession and I felt it would be in order,” she said.
However, her parents refused her from pursuing the career she had pursued since her youth.

“They didn’t believe such a profession could earn me good money and they were afraid of sending a young girl to Uganda for postgraduate studies.”

Ms Emerusenge went enrolled a bachelor’s degree in procurement and logistics but she was making a lot more money in interpreting sign language.

“I met all the school requirements myself including tuition. At some point, parents discovered that sign language was a good career but it was too late. I had already been forced into another profession altogether,” she said.

The degree she started to pursue in 2012 took five years till 2017 because she would miss several exams as she was often invited to international conferences to interpret sign language.

“After completing my bachelor’s degree in procurement and logistics in 2018, my parents allowed me to go for a postgraduate in community-based rehabilitation in Uganda.”

Ms Emerusenge graduates this December, to pursue what she has loved since childhood.