What you need to know:
- To make it easier for her waitresses, the founder has set up tablets on each table that clients can use to make their orders.
- People who are ‘neurodiverse’ like her, Bosibori Bitange says, are still discriminated against in hiring.
At 12.15pm on a Tuesday, a week after its launch, the ambience at Ayira’s Neurosoul Café, at 73 Westlands Road in Nairobi, is inviting. Wooden tables and chairs sit comfortably in an open space, and house plants in round sisal baskets hang from the roof. A classical instrumental plays in the background.
To the left of the entrance, a stocked wooden bookshelf stands, all speaking about neurological disorders. On each table sit two books of the same kind, as well as a tablet stand and three copies of the cafe’s menu.
Waitresses dressed in orange T-shirts and black aprons stand next to a table at the centre of the cafe. Their manager is teaching them how to serve customers.
They should approach a client from the left and deliver food from the same side, says the manager. They should remember to notify the client that they have arrived, and after serving, they should not forget to ask the customer whether they received the right order, or if there is something else they need. Most importantly, they should know the menu prices off the top of their head.
One of the waitresses, Sarah Bosibori Bitange, 27, is autistic. Her colleague Millicent Akoth, also 27, is dyslexic. They are here to work, and are under training, which is offered depending on how fast they can learn, considering their neurological conditions.
Ms Bitange was diagnosed with autism aged about 10. She was in Standard Four. Before the discovery, her mother had thought her daughter was a late bloomer, having been late in achieving standard milestones for children.
She was moved from a normal school to a special-needs one up to secondary level. She then joined Godown Arts Centre to nurture her talent in drawing and painting. Most people who are autistic have unique talents and abilities, she divulges.
She was the holder of the crown of Light of Autism Kenya in 2020, and heard about the café’s vacancy from her friend who is an autism activist. The friend referred Ms Bitange to the founder, who let on that she intended to open a restaurant to cater for the neurologically disabled.
“The school I was attending closed down because of corona, and it was hard to get a job the one year I was out. Staying home and advocating on social media wasn’t getting me the money I needed, and it was hard getting a job,” Ms Bitange says.
People who are “neurodiverse” like her, she says, are still discriminated against in hiring. “People focus more on your weaknesses than your strengths. I agreed because we would be trained at our own pace,” she says.
“This café is the first of its kind that gives a chance to neurodiverse people in the future to get job opportunities. No one is favoured, and we don’t feel like we are here because of pity,” she adds.
The main challenge at work, she says, is that she has to explain to customers that she is autistic so that they would understand if she takes longer to serve them or gets the order wrong.
“I have had to practise a lot, and it becomes exhausting sometimes to tell people that I am autistic. People tell me I don’t look autistic, but autism has no look,” she says.
She wishes she didn’t have to tell everyone about her condition, “because that resembles having a disability card”, but she says it gives her the chance to educate those who are interested in finding out more about it.
Ms Akoth also says she has to inform customers that she is dyslexic so that they can understand how she operates.
“I have trouble reading and writing, and I let my clients know upfront. When they decide on a meal, they can show me the specific dishes on the menu, write it on a piece of paper or fill the order on the tablet to make it easy for me,” she says.
She was diagnosed with dyslexia aged 10, and was first admitted to a normal school. Copying from a blackboard to her book, she would often interchange words and letters. She joined the café from Special Olympics School, which she joined when her athletic abilities were spotted.
“I was trained in athletics leadership, how to read and write, and public speaking, and I even represented my colleagues in the school’s board meetings. I have competed internationally, and won a bronze medal in Athens, Greece, in 2014,” she recalls.
“Working here is good because out there, people underestimate us. They think we cannot deliver. I can knock on doors to ask for jobs, but the person on the other side will first ask me to write and read. When I say no, they turn me away. Here, they already know what I am capable of.”
To make it easier for her waitresses, Diane Ayoo, the founder, has set up tablets on each table that clients can use to make their orders.
Her child, Ayira, for whom she named the café, has primrose syndrome, a rare neurological condition. This, she says, made her realise that her daughter needs models of accommodation that support her and set her up for success when she completes school.
“We have fought so much for people with physical disabilities to be accommodated, and now we have ramps, hearing aids and white canes,” she says.
“Physically disabled people are also getting jobs. But no one has thought about the neuro-disabled. People are not comfortable talking about it, not because we don’t want to, but because they don’t understand what neuro-disability is.”
When people talk to someone about neuro-disability, they think of mental illness, Ayoo says with concern.
“I have set up an ordering app in all tablets that a client can use to make their order. They state their table number and the order goes directly to the chef in the kitchen,” she explains.
“This is because my team cannot get complex orders or calculate change very well. Those who are dyslexic also have trouble reading and writing well, yet clients need the exact same quality of service as they would in the next café run by normal people.”
The café, Ayoo says, gives neurodiverse people a platform to contribute to society, to show people that it can happen and how to make the world inclusive, as well as educate and create awareness to prevent stigma.
This is why she has stocked books, and why she is working on a banner that informs clients about the café before they get in through the door.
The café also plans to hold market days where the neurologically disabled can showcase their art and talent.
“Finally, we want people to accept that they can be served and well handled by people who have intellectual disabilities or developmental disorders,” she says.