Walking past the Pallet Cafe on a leafy avenue in Lavington, Nairobi there is little to suggest it is any different from other cafes in Kenya. Until you enter the premises and look closer.
The customers seem to gesticulate a little more than usual with the expressiveness of hand gestures. And the servers are gesticulating back.
Is there an argument going on? One would wonder. Not at all. At Pallet cafe, the hosts are deaf and are taking orders from their customers.
Why is Pallet Café in Nairobi Special?
All the waiters and waitresses are deaf, wearing black attire with the words ‘#I am deaf’ printed on the back. Posters offering an introduction to basic sign language are also on display in the restaurant.
According to BBC Africa, compared to the usual noise levels of most Nairobi hotels at lunchtime, the cafe is rather quiet.
Once a customer enters the cafe, they are welcomed and greeted in sign language and shown to a table. As soon as they are seated, they are served the menu. The front page of the menu has basic sign language on it, which customers can use to order food items, like coffee.
How Does Pallet Café Operate?
When a customer decides on what they would like, they signal a waiter to take their order using either Kenyan Sign Language or gestures. Customers can also use codes assigned to each dish or drink to specify what they want on the menu or write their order on a pad of paper offered by the waiter.
The waiters/waitresses might also imitate shivering to ask whether anyone needs a cold bottle of water, which the customer can approve with a thumbs up.
Or if the customer ordered an egg, waiters can use fist gestures to ask if the customer wants it hard-boiled or wiggling fingers to show soft-boiled.
But apart from that, this cafe could easily be mistaken for any other upmarket café in Nairobi, with people tapping away on their laptops, sipping a latte, or tucking into delicious plates of food.
Because the waiters cannot hear, they constantly scan the room for customers who may want their attention.
However, the old saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks has never been more true than with some of the cafe’s customers. When placing orders, most customers still explain themselves to the waiters.
Some customers want to send messages to the chefs through the waiter, or send a message to the management about previous food, while others sometimes shout their order.
You may hear a customer shouting, “Waiter bring me two chapatis. One kebab and veggies. Or, tell the chef not to put pepper on the kebab, just like last time.” So, how do the staff handle such?
General manager Susan Watkin, an able staff member, says she is always there to deal with such cases.
“Some customers may be doubtful that the servers understand their food order, so I intervene,” Watkin says.
Do Staff Find Pallet Café Fascinating?
According to Watkin, she trained the servers for three days on how to deal with customers before they began their job.
She says clients find it adventurous when they come in to eat. They also learn how to use signs.
One waiter, Edward Gitau, 24, says he has settled in well because people understand his disability and are always willing to help wherever they can.
Gitau was born hearing with one ear but dust blocked that ear and he lost his hearing ability in 2008.
Gitau can read simple lip movements such as ‘fries’, ‘tea,’ and ‘coffee’. He recently graduated from the Karen Technical Training Institute for the Deaf.
Jacqueline Wambui, 25, studied at the Agha Khan Academy and later also joined the Karen institute.
Just like Gitau, Wambui was born hearing but contracted an illness that made her lose the sense of hearing.
Around 3 million disabled people in Kenya have limited opportunities for accessing employment.
Feisul Hussein, the owner of Pallet Cafe says he wanted to open a place that would not only serve great dishes but also involve disabled people and get them to work.
“My vision was to support the deaf community,” he notes.
By employing the deaf, who have faced discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives, the Pallet Cafe shows how integration can work.
According to Feisul, he employed deaf servers to give them a livelihood and to improve their self-confidence.
“The disabled people are human beings, too, and they have needs. I believe they are fully capable of any work,” Feisul said.
He says ever since he opened, he has had no regrets. “I opened this cafe in January. I am surrounded by competitors like Java, and Artcaffe, but I’m doing fine. The sales are amazing, I can’t complain,” he said.
Feisul is a passionate Buddhist who values peace and giving back to society.
“I don’t look at the qualifications of these deaf people. To me, you can have a master’s and still not deliver. I believe in training them for the job,” he said.
Feisul employed each of the servers because they are all competent. Divia Awuor, 36, has no qualifications, but she has a passion to learn.
She and the other deaf waiters share one belief. “We can do things differently and can deliver services like normal people. Employers should thus give more of us a chance in work opportunities,” she said.
Feisul, however, notes that deaf employees constantly lose confidence in their capacity, and they need to be constantly reminded to believe in themselves.
“The servers sometimes lose confidence because of how the community secludes them and doesn’t relate with them. We have weekly evening training to help them build their trust, confidence,e and working relationships,” he said.
He also emphasised that his cafe is purely a normal business not a project or an initiative for charity.
“I remit taxes for them. I pay them the required wage. We operate it like any other normal business, all protocols observed,” he said.
At first, Feisul struggled to find workers but now he does not have to look hard as candidates are always dropping off their CVs, he says.
The pallet café has been so successful that other businesses have asked if Feisul can help them hire deaf workers.
Kenyan Sign Language is not yet widely understood. There is little knowledge and awareness about it among the public.