Sikia Café: Where hearing impaired waitresses 'hear' and serve

One of the waitresses at Sikia takes  an order of ice cream from a customer. PHOTO | DENIS EDEMA

What you need to know:

  • Hope is here. At Sikia Cafe,Jinja,  the deaf and hard of hearing find a place to be heard and more social, writes Jacobs Odongo Seaman & Denis Edema.

Two things welcome you as you enter Sikia Café: warm silence and loud infectious smiles. All you need are your eyes to absorb them, never mind that the colourful ice creams in the glass display freezer could draw your attention away. But it would take some good craving for ice cream to turn your head away from Rachel Nasike’s smiles, or Cathy Nasasira’s glowing eyes piercing into your soul to read your face for every message possible.

In such fleeting moments, Betty Nazze would waltz in and, holding her hand up around head level, move it with the palm facing up and slightly curved to rest slightly below her chest. 

“You’re welcome,” she would sign.

Yes, you are welcome to Sikia Café, and the message would hit home long before you have noticed the many messages in bright colours on the walls politely pointing you to the fact that you are probably being served by a hearing impaired waiter or waitress.

And this is Sikia Café’s niche – employing the deaf or those hard of hearing as waiters and waitresses. For these youth, the café, on Plot 12A, Gabula Road in Jinja City – a stone’s throw away from Kakindu Stadium – is more than a workplace; it is where they find their identity and earn their recognition in a community.

Hajarah Namujusi, 22, a chef from Kawempe, was working in Entebbe where stigma associated with her disability put her off.

“Customers would come expecting me to speak but whenever I sign to tell them I’m deaf, they would lose interest in my service,” she signs as Nobert Napakol interprets.

“A friend contacted me through my parents that there was a place in Jinja that wanted to recruit people who are hard of hearing. I am happy here because I work with people who are like me,” Namujusi adds.

Social enterprise like no other

At the junction to Kakindu Road and the stadium entrance, one can see, a label in gold font reads “Sikia Café: Ice cream, Bakery, Coffee, Food.” A man emerges from the building whose front walls are painted grey and black with the windows, doors and vents given a girly pink coating.

David Bageya tells Daily Monitor he had only just discovered the place.

“I came for pizza but a boda boda man on Main Street directed me here saying ‘the other’ outlet would take half a day to serve,” said Bageya.

He feared he had bumped into a crafty boda boda operator and first ignored him. After inquiries at the cafeteria, Bageya had been told by an attendant that a chef would be in, then buy the ingredients and prepare his orders.

“I reluctantly took the advice of the boda boda man who tried to impress on me about this intriguing place run by deaf workers,” Bageya said.

Inside Sikia Café’s lobby, Vanessa Twesigye, the manager, led these reporters to an open space at the back. From a table tucked in a corner whose privacy is maintained by ‘cream stripe’ bamboo hedge, a couple could be seen metres away sipping from mugs and nibbling at something.

From across them, a man is gobbling up ice cream with relish. Twesigye has only settled us here to wait as she rings up the proprietors of this cafeteria.

Three days later, we meet Shadia Nabunya and her husband – who queerly requests not to be named despite the human resource expert freely sharing his views during the interview.

Nabunya, a trained accountant, had a passion for ice creams before she met her husband but it was after they had rented the space that she came up with the idea of a social enterprise for the deaf community.

“Our target was to employ deaf persons because we thought they are approachable and easy to work with,” says Nabunya, who then delves into the choice of the cafeteria name.

Sikia is Swahili word for “hear” or “listen” and it seemed to meet everything the couple was looking for in a name since their idea was about working with the deaf community. After looking through similar translations for listening or hearing in several languages spoken in Uganda and even across East Africa, the Swahili one ticked all the boxes. 

Nabunya grew up close to a school for children with learning difficulties, which made her attuned to the needs of disabled persons at a young age. Setting up Sikia Café in 2019, appeared just an extension of her childhood experiences.

“At first, we were worried about the idea of employing deaf persons but we were surprised by the public response,” admits Nabunya.

A revolution

The idea was to address and empower the ability and potential of people with disabilities. Initially, they employed only persons hard of hearing, only to realise that customers who found it hard communicating with them would go to only those they could speak to. So they brought in a hearing manager.

Many people who learn about the staffing at Sikia Café are intrigued by their business undertaking. Nabunya’s idea was unique three years ago but not anymore as it appears to have created a silent revolution.

On August 9, 2020, Endiro Coffee tweeted: “Endiro Coffee’s first Sign Language Cafe opens soon, creating jobs for deaf and hearing impaired people in Uganda. The first cafe of its kind in Uganda, but not the last.”

It might not be a competition but it was a silent revolution because Sikia had been serving for months by the time of this tweet. Endiro Coffee shortly after recognised this fact, tweeting a rejoinder.

“One of the first, apparently. We have been told about a restaurant called Sikia in Jinja that employs all deaf and hearing impaired people. Wonderful! We are happy….”

Like at Sikia Café, all the staff at Sign Language Café are deaf or hard of hearing.

The silent revolution among the deaf community continued later with former staffers at the Sign Language Café opting for a similar startup, Silent Café, in Nakulabye, a Kampala suburb.

Silent Café director Nasser Ssenyondo,says they have four staff hard of hearing working, including a chef and two barristers, as well as one hearing part-timer cum trainer.

However, the general outlook – as well as the experiences of disabled persons such as the waitresses at Sikia Café – suggests there are still so many rivers for the disabled persons to cross to reach that promised land of equality.

Social enterprises like Sikia, Silent and Sign Language cafes are not tax-exempt despite their efforts to alleviate a huge burden on the government. Instead, they are only good for a two per cent income tax waiver that the law accords businesses which employ more than 10 persons with disability.

“The tax exemptions are for big companies that can employ more than 10 people so even as we are staffed 97 per cent with deaf persons, we are not big enough to employ 25 deaf persons to get exemptions,” says Nabunya.

Robert Nkwangu, executive director of Uganda National Association of the Deaf (UNAD) and a board member at the disabled persons union, Nudipu, said they have only been able to secure exemptions for assistive devices for workers with disabilities. 

“We have not yet been successful in securing tax waivers for individual businesses, but we have worked to promote the enterprises, including giving them a platform and marketing/promoting their work,” Nkwangu said, admitting that more needs to be done to enable such social enterprises to get government incentives.

The need to raise voices

Section 13 of the Persons with Disabilities Act, 2006, gives the Minister of Labour the authority to determine a quota or percentage of PWDs to be employed in the workforce for employers.

A 2019 report by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics more than 4.5m Ugandans live with some sort of disability. However, most PWDs are largely uneducated, which makes attracting skilled labour difficult in an overly competitive job market. Even with formal qualifications, the legal enforcement is not strong enough to deter discrimination and guarantee equal opportunities.

“While a lack of education is often cited to be the main factor behind the poor employment statistics, discrimination is one of the key factors,” says Chrispus Nyombi and Alexander Kibandama in their 2014 publication, “Access to Employment for Persons with Disabilities in Uganda,” published in the Labour Law Journal.

But then came Sikia Café, where Nabunya says they considered those who can at least write and read and those who lack in these are usually connected to their friends to assist them in the due course “since they have the qualities we are looking for.”

Napakol, a sign language interpreter at Kyambogo University, is a resident interpreter at Sikia Café who also helps teach sign language to whoever enrolls for the programme.

“We run a programme for sign language lessons and this is free for all since we are helping the community to ably communicate effectively with our staff,” says Nabunya, who had to take up sign language lessons in order to connect with her staff.

“It took us about six months to train in sign language, the deaf culture, and how to deal with them in everyday life in a community. This is to ready us to know how to handle and understand the needs of the people we have employed.”

Her husband has also had to train himself in deaf culture and sign language. He uses mainly YouTube and her better half to get his hands to perfection.

In 2020, the Christian Science Monitor described Sikia Cafe as more than a place to get dessert, or a job. “It’s building community and breaking down barriers as it challenges people’s ideas about language and disability.”

The magazine noted an incident during which a deaf girl was interviewed for a job.

“She didn’t even know whether she had passed or not but she asked, ‘Can I bring my friend to interview as well?’ which is not something that would normally happen,” the girl had said, leaving the couple stunned.

“And before long, it happened in every interview. They are all eager to bring in their friends. You realise that their world is intertwined – they are a team and they help each other,” Nabunya’s husband told the Christian Monitor.

 New lease of life

Sikia Café’s waitresses have all undergone basic training and possess at least a certificate in a professional course such as hairdressing and catering but Nabunya takes them through fresh training in serving customers.

After training in hairdressing at Kyambogo Vocational Institute, Cathy Nasasira was stuck home in Mbarara as her parents were against the idea of her working in a salon.

“They argued that I would be overworked,” says the 24-year-old.

Then she received a message about a café in Jinja recruiting persons with hearing impairment as waitresses.

“My parents warmed up to this and accompanied me to the interview. I am excited to work with people I share a lot in common with,” she says.

Nasasira and her deaf friends have not only found a workplace but a home in every sense of the word. From the warmth of manager Twesigye, the girls who hail from within Jinja retire to their homes early but those from other parts of the country have where to sleep, courtesy of their employer.

“When these girls come for interviews, the parents accompany them to see the workplace and where they are going to stay because they want to ensure that their girls’ security is guaranteed since they are transferring responsibility to another person,” Nabunya says on why she offers accommodation.

At the café, the tact of the waitresses is to present a customer who walks in with a menu. Many would be aware of the environment they are in by the time they have skimmed through the menu and would simply point out their orders.

But human nature means it is not always a smile-and-serve affair.

“Some customers will show an attitude on realising that we are deaf while others just stand there as if waiting for someone who can hear to come and they speak to which makes it difficult to approach them,” says Betty Nazze, 21.

For Rachel Nasike, it is customers who keep returning but refuse to believe the girls are hard of hearing.

“There are those who adjust to the level of how they understand a deaf person, and then there are those who maintain we are pretending,” she says.

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