Fighting stigma with ice cream at Sikia Cafe

Katumba Badru/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Shadia Nakueira (center) sits with employees at Sikia Cafe in Jinja, Uganda, which she founded with her husband, Imran.
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When customers first enter Sikia Cafe, in the lakeside town of Jinja, Uganda, they’ll first spot colorful ice cream flavors. And when it’s time to order, they’ll notice an infographic on their menus, teaching them how to sign for the items they’d like.

The cafe is staffed by deaf waiters. But its founders, Shadia and Imran Nakueira, hope Sikia will do more than provide employment opportunities. The goal is to change attitudes toward the deaf community in Uganda, where misunderstanding and discrimination toward deaf people are common. The cafe’s name is derived from Swahili, and means “hear” or “listen” – which Ms. Nakueira emphasizes can happen in so many ways, not just through sound. 

Why We Wrote This

Sikia Cafe is 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.

Though change is slow, staff say that watching people’s perceptions and attitudes change has been rewarding.

“You come here and you see children and clients who have never interacted with a deaf person before, interacting with our staff,” says Mr. Nakueira. “The fact that it’s a business that is transforming society, even if by one small step every day, it kind of makes you feel, what more can I do?”

Shadia and Imran Nakueira rented the space for a restaurant in the dreamy, lakeside town of Jinja, Uganda, before they knew exactly what they were going to do with it. 

They knew one thing though: They wanted to work alongside people with disabilities. 

This resolve had a lot to do with their first meeting. The couple, now married for three years, met at a sporting event at a primary school for children with learning disabilities in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, in July 2013. 

Why We Wrote This

Sikia Cafe is 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.

Imran had driven his sister to the event. Shadia, who had just finished her MBA in the United States, was dishing up ice cream for students and guests. 

“She was busy that day and she was selling to many people,” Imran says, with Shadia leaning against him. There was no time for flirting, so he had to get creative. “The story [we told her] was ‘We have a party somewhere. Can you supply ice cream? Can we have your number?’”

Four years later, Shadia closed up her ice cream business in Kampala to join her new husband in Jinja, where he worked in human resources for a forestry company.

Long before they met, though, she’d hoped to help open opportunities for people with disabilities. She’d grown up just on the other side of the fence from the school where they met. “The teacher used to come ... and tutor us at home,” Shadia says in her usual bubbly tone, fond with memory. “And then on weekends we would go to school to study there as well.”

Katumba Badru/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Rashida Namale, a waitress who is deaf, serves tea to a customers at Sikia Cafe in Jinja, Uganda.

Shortly after the couple acquired the space, in 2018, an idea came along at the market. 

“There was this very nice gentleman who I started buying things from. He used to sell lemons and he was deaf,” she says. But she noticed other people mostly avoided him – never knowing, for example, how good he was with money. Was there a way, she wondered, to highlight other deaf people’s skills, and break down those barriers?

That was the birth of Sikia Cafe, staffed by deaf waiters, which opened last August – ice cream section first. The name is derived from Swahili, and means “hear” or “listen.” 

Listening happens in so many ways beyond sound, Shadia says: body language, emotion, watching. 

On the job

In Jinja, Sikia is famous for its colorful ice cream flavors, displayed at the entrance – Shadia’s touch. To order, customers consult an infographic on the menu, which teaches how to sign words for menu items and phrases like “thank you,” “takeaway,” and “eat here,” or scribble their selections on paper.

One of the four deaf people serving up desserts is Mark Kato, who often flashes a smile. The job has been instrumental to his own development, he says. In addition to learning job skills, for example, he’s learned to write.

Like many students with disabilities, Mr. Kato wasn’t able to complete secondary school. Overall, 12.5% of Uganda’s total population is living with a disability. Yet only about 2% of enrolled students are disabled, which analysts suggest indicates the difficulty they face accessing education. 

Before Sikia, Mr. Kato held a job as a waiter at a hotel in Kampala, an environment he describes as hostile and less accommodating. 

“There was a lot of pressure because the other waiters were not deaf, and language was a barrier too,” he says, using British Sign Language. 

Yet Sikia hasn’t always been a bed of roses either. 

“When customers come in and I give them a book to write in, most of them give me a bad attitude,” Mr. Kato says. “It makes me feel bad sometimes, but I understand because not all of them know I am deaf” right away.

Katumba Badru/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Waitress Rashida Namale, who is deaf, talks with regular customer Ssentongo Rogers, who is slowly learning how to sign.

It’s that kind of widespread prejudice that Sikia hopes to combat. More than a million people who are deaf or hard of hearing live in Uganda, according to the most recent census data, and discrimination is common. In one of the local languages, Luganda, the word for deaf is “kasilu,” which Shadia and Imran say translates as “stupid” and “violent.”

“That stigma is very [present],” says Shadia, who teaches customers to use the word “kigala”: someone who doesn’t speak or hear.

Aisha Kauma, another deaf waiter at Sikia, says she has had a similar experience. Some customers, especially new ones, like to request the cafe manager, who can speak and hear. 

Unlike Mr. Kato, Ms. Kauma wasn’t born deaf. She continued to go to a regular school while her ability to hear declined, and it was not until she turned 13 that she completely lost her hearing. 

“I was OK with it,” she says wearing her signature wide smile. “I felt normal.”

If she weren’t deaf, however, Ms. Kauma would have been a nurse – not “having to deal with customers!” she says, laughing. 

Many employees, Shadia notes, have grown more confident. In September of last year, the cafe organized a talent show for Deaf Awareness Month. 

“It became a deaf space,” says Imran. “Ninety percent of the people in this courtyard were deaf.” During business hours, many deaf people visit Sikia as customers, too. Most of them come from Kampala, Shadia says – a 2-hour drive away.

Katumba Badru/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Waitresses Rashida Namale, Aisha Kauma, and Aidah Nambi (from left to right) arrange tables and chairs to start the workday at Sikia Cafe in Jinja, Uganda.

‘The bigger picture’

For Shadia, Imran, and the rest of the staff, watching people’s perceptions and attitudes change in the community has been rewarding. 

“What makes it different is that to our staff, the job is not just a job; it’s kind of a form of acceptance into society,” Imran says. 

“You come here and you see children and clients who have never interacted with a deaf person before, interacting with our staff. The fact that it’s a business that is transforming society, even if by one small step every day, it kind of makes you feel, what more can I do?”

Ssentongo Rogers has been visiting Sikia nearly every week since March, after he read about the cafe on a local blog. It’s also his workstation sometimes when he doesn’t go to the office. 

Mr. Ssentongo works for a multinational brewery in Jinja and says he enjoys Sikia for many reasons, but mainly for the mind shift it’s given him about disability. In his eyes, patronizing Sikia is a social responsibility.

“That’s the bigger picture and that’s why I am always here,” says Mr. Ssentongo, who is slowly learning to sign.

Katumba Badru/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Waitress Aisha Kauma, who is deaf, prepares to serve ice cream to a customer at Sikia Cafe.

Wanting to do more but not having the means is a major obstacle, Imran says, especially as the cafe struggles to break even.

“You want to be transformative, but the resources may not allow you to do it,” he says. 

For him and Shadia, though, the biggest transformations might be how the cafe has changed them personally.

Before Sikia opened, Shadia had to enroll in an official class to learn British Sign Language, and Imran has used YouTube to improve his skills as well. But she’s learned more than language skills from her employees, and refers to one instance in particular.

“When we interviewed Aisha, 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,” she says. 

“And before I knew it, it was happening in every interview. They are all wanting to bring their friends. You realize that in their world, it’s intertwined. They are a team, they help each other.”

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