Feature: Ugandan silent cafe changing attitudes toward deaf culture

by Ronald Ssekandi

KAMPALA, May 25 (Xinhua) -- In the dusty and noisy town of Nankulabye, a suburb of the Ugandan capital Kampala, is a coffee shop that is changing the attitude of the hearing world toward the silent world.

African art paintings and a strong coffee aroma welcome you to Silent Cafe, an eatery owned and run by deaf people.

A sign language board is hung in one corner while the menu is written on another board where dinners can easily point at what they would wish to have.

The glass doors completely cut you off from the noisy street, apart from the occasional sound of the coffee machine.

Roy Rusa, the manager and barista, welcomes you with a smile and sign gestures. As a dinner, if you do not know the sign language, you point at what you want or write it down on paper or on the phone, and Roy or his other deaf colleagues will quickly work on the order.

Nasser Ssenyondo, the proprietor of the cafe told Xinhua in a recent interview that he started the restaurant not only to change the attitude of the hearing people toward the deaf but also to offer employment to the deaf and make them aware that they are able-bodied people.

"My interest is to do something that can bring social-economic empowerment to the people with disability. They really need inclusion," he said.

"It is very important for the community to understand that life is not about competition but to work together. We are all at the same level," he added.

Ssenyondo, born in the central Ugandan district of Masaka 30 years ago, became deaf at the age of 10 years after a strong bout of meningitis. His parents, who were coffee farmers, supported him throughout his education despite the negative community attitude toward the deaf people. He is now a social worker with a master's degree in business administration.

"My love for coffee began from way back. My parents sold coffee to get me school fees. All that I have been through, I have been cared for by coffee," he said.

According to the country's last population census carried out in 2014, the state-run Uganda Bureau of Statistics estimated that there were over one million deaf people out of the over 40 million people in the country.

Uganda National Association of the Deaf, a non-governmental organization, estimates that the deaf population is more due to the inadequacies in data collection in addition to the fact that deafness is invisible.

Growing up as deaf people, according to Ssenyondo, is challenging as many of them drop out of school because of social discrimination. Some communities see deaf children as a curse and therefore they do not want to interact with them.

He said most of the social discrimination is a result of ignorance about the world of the deaf. He argued that it is that ignorance or attitude that he wants to change in the community.

When Ssenyondo is not out there on community outreach programs about the deaf, he is at the restaurant, where he gives a hand as a waiter.

"We want to build an inclusive society for all. I wanted to make a contribution and see how we can solve the challenges of unemployment, especially among the deaf people," he said.

Chris Mugaya, a regular dinner at the restaurant, told Xinhua that his attitude like many of his business colleagues in the neighborhood has changed toward the deaf people.

"Silent Cafe connects the deaf and us who speak. Before I used to see the deaf people doing signs but I could not know how to respond, but now I can interact with them. When I look at a deaf person, I look at him as a brother. I have learnt many things about them," Mugaya said.

He said deaf people have to come out bold and strong, and show the world that they are equally able-bodied people.

Mugaya said besides that, the restaurant setup offers a good environment for social and business networking.

Rusa, who also has a passion for art said as a deaf person, working in a restaurant where he interacts with hearing people has restored his confidence. His wish is to train more deaf people so that they too can gain confidence.

"My dream is to become a trainer. If I get an opportunity, I do want to share the same skills and knowledge to train other people," he said.

Ssenyondo said although business is now slow because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he dreams of setting up more branches of Silent Cafe across the country when business returns to normal.

He argued that the more deaf people interact with the speaking world, the more negative community attitude toward them will reduce.

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