The Hearing Loss of Desmond Tutu

m8This past week the world was saddened by the passing of a truly historic figure and the “father of his country,” Nelson Mandela. As this is prepared at Hearing International, President m4 Obama and four former US presidents, Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush  are on their way to Johannesburg, South Africa, for the memorial ceremonies. Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, pictured above with Mandela, says of him, “Never before in history was one human being so universally acknowledged in his lifetime as the embodiment of magnanimity and reconciliation as Nelson Mandela. He set aside the bitterness of enduring 27 years in apartheid prisons – and the weight of centuries of colonial division, subjugation and repression – to personify the spirit and practice of Ubuntu.” Ubuntu is a Nguni Bantu term (the language of the Nugni in South Africa) that literally means “human-ness” or “human kindness.” (Click on Mandela’s Picture for some of his Notes to the Future)

In South Africa and Zimbabwe, the term Ubuntu has come to be used as a term for a kind of humanist philosophy, ethic or ideology, also known as Ubuntuism that has propagated mduring the Africanization (transition to majority rule) process of these countries during the 1980s and 1990s.  Mr. Mandela perfectly understood that people are dependent on other people in order for individuals and society to prosper. Thus, in the spirit of Ubuntu, Madiba (as Nelson Mandela was known to friends) was quick to point out that he alone could not take credit for the many accolades that came his way; that he was surrounded by people of integrity who were brighter and more youthful than himself.

The truth is, according to Archbishop Tutu, the 27 years Mandela spent in the belly of the apartheid beast deepened his compassion and capacity to empathize with others. On top of the lessons about leadership and culture to which he was exposed growing up in the care of Aba Thembu Regent Jongintaba – and the experiences of developing a voice for young people in anti-apartheid politics, and physically prosecuting the struggle – prison seemed to add his understanding of the human com5ndition.

Tutu further says of Madiba, “Was he a saint? Not if a saint is entirely flawless. I believe he was saintly because he inspired om7thers powerfully and revealed in his character, transparently, many of God’s attributes of goodness: compassion, concern for others, desire for peace, forgiveness and reconciliation. Thank God for this remarkable gift to South Africa and the world.” 

While Nelson Mandela had a hearing loss as most people in their 90s do, his wife would place him into conversational situations where he could hear best and the impairment would not compromise the interactions.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Nobel  Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu spent many years at Mandela’s side. He was Chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee and providing counsel to Mandela. It is Archbishop Tutu  who is our real story this week.

Desmond Mpilo Tutu is an internationally renowned  South African social rights activist and now retired Anglican Archbishop who rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid. Tutu was born in 1931 in Klerksdorp, Transvaal.  When he was 12, his family moved to Johannesburg, where his father was a teacher and his mother was a cleaner and cook at a school for the blind.   Although Tutu wanted to become a doctor, his family could not afford the training, and he followed his father’s footsteps into teaching. He studied at the Pretoria Bantu Normal College from 1951 to 1953, and went on to teach at Johannesburg Bantu High School and at Munsienville High School in Mogale City. However, he resigned following the passage of the Bantu Education Act (later called the Black Education Act) in protest of the poor educational m2m3prospects for black South Africans.

He continued his studies, this time in theology, at St Peter’s Theology College in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, and in 1960 was ordained as an Anglican priest following in the footsteps of his mentor and fellow activist, Trevor Huddleston, whom he initially met on a street corner with his mother several years before.  Tutu then traveled to King’s College London, (1962–1966), where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology.  He later returned to South Africa and from 1967 until 1972 used his lectures to highlight the circumstances of the African population. He wrote a letter to Prime Minister B. J. Vorster, in which he described the situation in South Africa as a “powder barrel” that can explode at any time”……. the letter was never answered. 

He became chaplain at the University of Fort Hare in 1967, a hotbed of dissent and one of the few quality universities for African students in the southern part of Africa.  From 1970 to 1972, Tutu lectured at the National University of Lesotho.  In 1972, Tutu returned to the UK, where he was appointed vice-director of the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches, at Bromley in Kent.m6 He returned to South Africa in 1975 and was appointed Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg—the first black person to hold that position.  He was the first black South African Archbishop of Cape Town and primate of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa (now the Anglican Church of Southern Africa).

Tutu’s admirers see him as a man who since the demise of apartheid has been active in the defense of human rights and uses his high profile to campaign for the oppressed, though his consistent opposition to actions and policies pursued by Israel (such as over the Gaza Strip) and the United States (such as detentions at Guantánamo Bay) has made him controversial. He has campaigned to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, poverty, racism, sexism, the imprisonment of Chelsea Manning, homophobia and transphobia. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984; the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1986; the Pacem in Terris Award in 1987; the Sydney Peace Prize in 1999; the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2007;and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. He has also compiled several books of his speeches and sayings, including writing the Introduction to Nelson Mandela’s Notes to the Future.


Tutu’s Hearing Loss

To audiologists the story of Tutu’s hearing loss is one heard many times a day.  While an international figure, Archbishop Tutu would comment on something and his wife would tell him that she had just said the same thing moments before, without his hearing.  At other times, he noticed that he had missed a joke at the dinner table because other people had suddenly burst out laughing.  As a result of his hearing loss, he found he often needed to turn his head to hear someone properly.  Tutu has said that he heard less in one ear than the other and that over the years it’s got worse.   He added, “it’s a great handicap, especially when you are with people.”

Since the hearing impairment has progressed he finds that when he is not using his hearing aids he has to ask his wife to tell him what somebody has said. “And, more often than not, in a group when if people start laughing, Tutu says, “I almost invariably have to turn to my neighbor and say, ‘What was that?'”  While he has experienced hearing loss since childhood, and now wears two hearing aids. He said that, “The first time I got a hearing aid was quite a while ago, in the 70s, 80s, I can’t even remember now.”  He recalls problems with his ears even in childhood. “I’ve always had trouble, at least in one ear,”  he recalls. He also noticed that as a child pus would sometimes ooze out of his ear, so we can speculate that his hearing loss was the result of untreated otitis media.

How remarkable it is that Desmond Tutu was able to rise from such humble beginnings, despite a hearing loss, to become a leader the fight against apartheid and, arguably, one of the most influential people of our time.




About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.