My meeting in a cafe without words

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

A friend had organized a variety show where different children with different types of disabilities showed their talents in dance, music and drama. In addition to the showcases, there were workshops, such as the one for sign language.

I chose to attend this workshop because the people inside this room seemed happier than the others there. They were taught the basics of sign language like how to greet, how to say man, woman, father and mother. One of the entertainers seemed a little too energetic and didn’t talk much, probably not even at all (or so I thought).

The host was Gloria Hindu, it was only later that I learned that she was deaf. Hindu and I became friends and then collaborated on a music video project. I asked her manager if Sandra Suubi was okay with someone signing some of the lyrics.

Hindu is the girl who signed in the Nsiimye video. Since then, she has held a number of workshops, raised awareness among the deaf and supported Manchester United.

But this story is not about Hinduism. It was around the time I knocked her out after the Manchester United defeat. Still.

So we met at the Silent Café in Nakulabye, a new café that is as exciting as it is surprising. 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 employees deaf. On my first day at the hotel in 2015, I hadn’t realized this, so I continued to strike up conversations with all the staff and tell them about Uganda. It wasn’t until later that I realized they kept trying to sign, but I didn’t get it.

I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes at the Silent Café, I watched a number of YouTube videos to at least gear up, I wanted to be able to at least say “how are you?”

Unfortunately by the time I arrived I had forgotten everything. So much of my conversation between Ssenyondo and Hindu happened through phone and laptop chats.

Most of the time, when I go to a cafe, I ask for a 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 stirring.

“Cappuccino, when properly prepared, cannot spill, you don’t have to be careful,” Ssenyondo told me.

Prior to joining Silent Cafe, Ssengendo was a frontline manager at Endiro Café branches which employ many members of the deaf community.

Then he created the Silent Café. The space specializes in different types of coffee products but it is mostly a place created by a person from the deaf community and employing other deaf people.

“It’s good to be employed in an inclusive setting, but as disabled peers we should be able to employ other people in all of our engagements so it’s not a one-sided story” , he said.

The editing, he says, is deliberate, it is an affirmation that the deaf, like any other person, can create establishments and create jobs, an empowerment of his society.

Employees of the Silent Café in Nakulabye, Kampala

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

Like any other business, he agrees that after Covid-19 they struggled to make business sense but, he says, they work for a cause of empowering people and making sure they deliver quality services.

The establishment currently has four employees, only one of them has the ability to audition and although they cannot sign, they know some basics.

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

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

It was very competitive but Ssengendo made the top three business ideas but at the time there was a problem, all he had was passion, coming from a family of coffee farmers in Masaka.

“I love the aroma of coffee since childhood. It was this passion that helped come up with the coffee business idea,” he says.

Therefore, he had to learn how to run a cafe in a sturdier setting. This is how he signed up for Endiro Coffee to learn the required skills in November 2019.

“I had to complete a comprehensive training in managing people, finances, operations, planning and space management. This required me to take on many high-level operational roles in the business,” he recalls.

Two months later it was 2020 and by March Covid-19 had rewritten social life, he begged his bosses to let him continue practicing and he was ready to work without pay. He says he learned a lot in the four months that he really wanted to start his own cafe, but was given a new role at Endiro.

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

Later that year, in August, when the Sign Language Café by Endiro Coffee opened in Nakasero, he was appointed pioneer manager: “I ran it for about six months. Then I realized I had the mentorship required to start my own cafe.

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

At the cafe, we were met by Irene Naava Nanyanzi, who according to Hindu is the current Miss Ability Uganda crown holder. His face is familiar, in 2018 for example, having featured in Kenneth Mugabi’s music video, Nkwegomba.

Nanyanzi was not born deaf, but suffered hearing loss at the age of three after an attack of malaria. Its history almost resembles that of Ssengendo. He lost his hearing after a meningitis infection in 1993.

“I’ve been like this ever since but it’s ok. Life had to go on. I’m the only deaf person in my family. My family has been very supportive of me. I finished my MBA 10 years ago so I’m grateful” , he said.

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

Unlike the deaf, the hard of hearing can talk and interact easily with other people and can listen when they are closer to those they are talking to.

Most of the time, when deaf people go to an interview or a formal engagement, they will need a professional interpreter to facilitate communication. Interpreters charge between Shs50,000 and Shs100,000. Some charge per day, while others charge on an hourly basis.

“So it’s difficult for deaf people to get the representation they need, because most people find it expensive to hire an interpreter,” she says.

Hindu easily communicates with Ssengendo and the conversation we have ranges from coffee to other things like music and movies.

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

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

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

We can also talk about whether deaf gossip, given the fact that a lot of communication happens in the open, “yeah we gossip like you guys too, it’s just that we do when the person is not there or on our way home, but I saw people signing under the table,” says Hindu, adding, “we can do crazy things you do.

And oh, is calling her deaf rude like some people suggest? “I have no problem being called deaf, because I’m deaf, even though I can’t speak for others. But, you dare to call me kasiru[dumb]!”

More coffee and decoration

Meanwhile, most people around Nakulabye rarely communicate with the coffee people. For example, one of the days we are conducting the interview, the neighbors, a hardware store, park their loading lane blocking the entrance. And there is a moment.

Ssengendo notes that these people like to do things without considering their neighbors, but he chooses not to confront them.

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

And the decor says it, the wall paintings and pendant lights create a vibe that many can easily want to associate with, no wonder he says a lot of his customers are young people who want to look hip.

Ssengendo created the Silent Café, the space specializes in different types of coffee products but most importantly, it is a place created by a person from the deaf community and employs other deaf people.

“It’s fine to be employed in an inclusive setting, but as people with disabilities we should be able to employ other people in all of our engagements so it’s not a one-sided story,” he says.

The editing, he says, is deliberate, it is an affirmation that the deaf, like anyone else, can create establishments and create employment, an empowerment of their society.

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

Like any other business, he agrees that after Covid-19 they struggled to make business sense but, he says, they work for a cause of empowering people and making sure they deliver quality services.

The facility currently has four employees.

About Walter Bartholomew

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