Behind a nondescript gate in an affluent neighbourhood of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, is a social experiment that demonstrates how deaf people’s prospects can be transformed.
The Pallet Cafe demonstrates how integration can work by employing deaf staff who have faced discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives.
Staff members take orders using either Kenyan Sign Language, mimes, or gestures as they weave their way around the tables and abundant potted plants in this self-styled garden café.
There are posters on display that introduce some basic sign language, but for example, wait staff may mime shivering to enquire whether a customer would like a cold bottle of water, which the customer can confirm with a thumbs up.
Alternatively, if an egg is ordered, a fist gesture can be used to indicate whether the customer wants it hard-boiled or soft-boiled, while wiggling fingers indicates soft-boiled.
Apart from that, this could easily pass for any other upscale café, with people tapping away on laptops in between sipping lattes and tucking into delectable plates of food.
Sharon Cherono is one of more than 30 deaf employees at Pallet Cafe. Edward Kamande, who joined the staff shortly after Pallet Cafe opened in 2019, began as a waiter but has since advanced to manager.
According to the 26-year-old, the founder, Feisal Hussein, “decided to take a chance on me. He noticed that I was carrying something.”
The entrepreneur, a former aid worker, desired to open a restaurant that would not only serve delicious dishes such as eggs Benedict and shakshuka (a spicy North African egg dish), but would also support and employ disabled people.
“My vision for my business, which now has three locations, was to support the deaf community,” he says. At this branch in Lavington, more than 30 of the 40 employees are deaf or hard of hearing.
Mr Kamande believes that he is valued for his abilities. “There is no discrimination in our organisation; there is only freedom,” he asserts.