My date at a café without words

The employees at Silent Café  in Nakulabye, Kampala. Photos / Courtesy.

What you need to know:

  • Silent no more. One man passionate about coffee set up a coffee place where he employs the deaf and those hard of hearing to empower them, writes Andrew Kaggwa.

It started with a talent show at the National Theatre in 2017.

A friend had organised a variety show where different children with different kinds of disabilities were showcasing their talents in dance, music and acting. Besides showcases, there were workshops, like the sign language one.

I chose to attend that workshop because people inside that room seemed happier than the rest at the venue. They were being taught the basics of sign language such as  how to greet, how to say man, woman, father and mother. One of the facilitators seemed a bit too energetic and did not speak much, probably at all even (so I thought).

The facilitator was  Gloria Hindu, it was only later that I learnt she was deaf. Hindu and I became friends and later collaborated on a music video project.  I asked her manager if  Sandra Suubi  was okay  to have someone sign some of the lyrics.

Hindu is the girl  who  was signing in the Nsiimye video. She has since  done a number of workshops, created more awareness about the deaf, and supports  Manchester United.

But this story is not about Hindu. It was just about the time I took her out after Manchester United had lost. Again.

So, we met at the Silent Café in Nakulabye, a new coffee place that is exciting and surprising in equal measure. Nasa Ssenyondo, a coffee enthusiast runs the place. His place easily reminds me of Park Inn by Raddison, a hotel in Cape Town, South Africa with at least more than 20 of their 98 staff deaf.  On my first day at the hotel in 2015, I had not realised it thus I kept starting conversations with all employees and telling them about Uganda. It was only later that I realised they kept trying to sign but I did not get it.

I  was not about to make the same mistakes at the Silent Café, I watched a number of YouTube videos to at least equip myself, I wanted to be able to at least say, “how are you?”

A  laptop  and  phone

Sadly by the time I arrived, I had forgotten it all. So, much of my conversation between Ssenyondo and Hindu happened through chats on both phone and the laptop.

Most times when I visit a café, I ask for cappuccino as a starter. When this was delivered, it was almost filled to the brim that with just a little sugar, I had to be careful while stirring.

“Cappuccino, when made right, cannot spill, you don’t have to be careful,” Ssenyondo signalled me.

Before joining the Silent Cafe, Ssengendo was a front manager at Endiro Café branches that employs many from the deaf community.

Then he established the Silent Café. The space specialises in different types of coffee products but above all, it is a place started by a person from the deaf community and employs other deaf.

“It is okay to be employed in an inclusive setting, but as peersons with disabilities, we should be able to employ others in all our engagements so that it is not a one-sided narrative,” he says.

The set-up, he says is deliberate, it is a statement that the deaf, just like any other person, can start up establishments and create employment, an empowerment of his society.

The employees at Silent Café  in Nakulabye, Kampala

“Disability is largely known for begging. We want to help change the narrative as useful members of our communities and country,” he notes.

Like any other business, he agrees that after Covid-19, they struggled to make business sense but, he says, they are working for a cause of empowering people and ensuring they offer quality services.

The establishment at the moment has four employees, only one of these has the hearing ability and much as they do not know how to sign, they know a few basics.

Starting out

Ssengendo says setting up the café was a culmination of many ideas. Light for the World, an international agency, was looking for a more viable idea that can lead to increased employment of people with disabilities in Uganda.

“I was among the more than 70 people who came up with various business ideas. I was shortlisted among the seven most viable ideas and a business pitch was scheduled,” he says.

It was highly competitive but Ssengendo made the top three business ideas but at the time, there was one problem, all he had was the passion, having come from a coffee farming family in Masaka.

“I have loved the coffee aroma since childhood. It is this passion that helped come up with the coffee business idea,” he says.

Consequently, he had to learn how to manage a coffee shop in a more robust setting. That is how he enrolled at Endiro Coffee to get the required skills in November 2019.

“I had to undergo a comprehensive training in managing people, finances, operations, space set-up and management. It required me to take many senior operational roles at the company,” he recalls.

Two months later, it was 2020 and by March, Covid-19 had rewritten social life, he pleaded with his bosses to let him continue practising and he was willing to work without pay. He says he learnt a lot in the four months that he badly wanted to set up his own café but he was given a new role at Endiro.

“I was promoted to co-manager at Endiro at The Surgery in Naguru,” he says.

Later that year, in August, when Sign Language Café by Endiro Coffee opened at Nakasero, he was appointed as the pioneer manager, “I managed it for about six months. Then, I realised I had the required the mentorship to start on my own café.”

But, the country was going through a second pandemic wave and later a lockdown. With such circumstances, he could not  open the business thus, so he postponed to  December 2021.

Famous employees...

While at the café, we were waited on by Irene Naava Nanyanzi, who Hindu says is the current crown holder of the Miss Ability Uganda. Her face is familiar, in 2018 for instance, having  featured in Kenneth Mugabi’s music video, Nkwegomba.

Nanyanzi was not born deaf, but got a hearing impairment when she was three years after a bout of malaria. Her story is almost similar to that of Ssengendo. He lost his hearing after a meningitis infection in 1993.

“I have been like this since then but it is okay. Life had to go on. I am the only deaf person in my family.  My family has been very supportive. I completed my MBA 10 years ago, so, I am grateful,” he says.

Unlike these two, Hindu says she might be  from a family with the highest number of deaf people in Uganda. She says her grandmother had eight children, four including her mother,  are deaf and two are hard of hearing,  while the other  two can hear.

Hard of hearing people unlike the deaf, can speak and interact easily with other people and can listen when they are closer to those they are talking to.

Most times, when deaf people are going for an interview or an official engagement, they will need a professional interpreter for easy communication. Interpreters charge between Shs50,000   and Shs100,000. Some charge per day, while others, it is on hourly basis.

“This makes it hard for the deaf people to get the representation needed since most people find it expensive to hire an interpreter,” she says.

Let’s talk  film

Hindu easily communicates with Ssengendo and the conversation we have ranges from coffee to other things such as music and films.

Hindu  says she can listen to very loud music, but can only hear  the beats not the lyrics. Nevertheless, she says 2Baba’s African Queen is her favourite song.

Even when she does not have a favourite film, we agree that the 2021 Academy winning CODA is brilliant. The film follows the story of Ruby, the only hearing member of a deaf family from Gloucester, Massachusetts. At 17, she works mornings before school to help her parents and brother keep their fishing business afloat. But in joining her high school’s choir club, Ruby finds herself drawn to her duet partner and her latent passion for singing.

Hindu had no idea that Troy Kotsur, one of the actors in CODA, won an Oscar for his role or that he was deaf in real life and the revelation made her appreciate the film.

And the gossip...?

We also get to talk about whether the deaf gossip, considering the fact that much of the communication happens in the open, “yes, we also gossip like you guys, it is just that we do it when the person is not around or on our way home, but I have seen people signing under the table,” Hindu says adding, “we can do crazy things you people do.”

And oh, is calling her deaf rude like some people suggest? “I have no problem being called deaf, because I am deaf, although I cannot speak for others. But,  you dare call me kasiru[dumb]!”

More  coffee  and  decor

Meanwhile, most of the people around Nakulabye rarely communicate with the people at the café. For instance, on one of the days we are conducting the interview, the neighbours, a hardware shop, park their cargo track obstructing the entrance. And it stays there for a while.

Ssengendo notes that those people like doing things without considering their neighbours but he chooses not to confront them.

But that challenge aside, the cafe is deliberate with its look, Ssengendo says besides growing up in a coffee farming family, “coffee is considered cool. I also want to be cool.”

And the decor says it, the paintings on the wall and the hanging lights create a mood that many may easily want to associate with, no wonder he says many of his customers are young people  who  want to look trendy.

Beginnings

The start

Ssengendo established the Silent Café, the space specialises in different types of coffee products but above all, it is a place started by a person from the deaf community and employs other deaf.

“It is okay to be employed in an inclusive setting, but as PWDs we should be able to employ others in all our engagements so that it is not a one-sided narrative,” he says.

The set-up, he says is deliberate, it is a statement that the deaf, just like any other person can start up establishments and create employment, an empowerment of his society.

“Disability is largely known for begging. We want to help change the narrative as useful members of our communities and country,” he notes.

Like any other business, he agrees that after Covid-19, they struggled to make business sense but, he says, they are working for a cause of empowering people and ensuring that they offer quality services.

The establishment at the moment has four employees.

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