One year ago, Ruth Wanjala and Juliette Mutheu formulated a relaxed way of disseminating scientific information to the public in coffee houses. They invite experts to speak to lay people on health, writes HAROLD AYODO
The invited scientists — mostly doctors — respond to an audience drawn from university students, employed and non-employed people. The first Kenyan Science CafÈ (KSC) was held at Java Coffee House where medical experts spoke on benefits of finding a HIV and Aids vaccine.
The second cafÈ, which focused on malaria, was held at the Savannah coffee lounge in September 2009 while the next tackled climate change and was held at the Discovery lounge. Ruth Wanjala
Last month, they cast their net wider and held the cafÈ in Nakuru. They hold exclusive cafÈs for women to freely engage gynaecologists on touchy matters of sexual health.
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The International Engagement Award (IEA) from the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom recently gave them Sh3.3 million in financial support following the popularity of their monthly cafÈs.
Ruth Wanjala, 29
What inspired you to start the Kenyan Science CafÈ?
I realised the importance of simplifying and disseminating scientific information during my stint as a communications assistant with the African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS) between October 2005 and November last year. Experts completed excellent research studies that could change the lives of the citizens but their findings never got to the public.
How do you relate it with your academic background in the arts?
As a graduate of Bachelor and Master of Arts in Communication from Daystar University, projects in communication come easy. I got experience in organising science cafÈs after attending the British Council’s creative science skills seminar in Grahamstown, South Africa in 2007. I also got experience in communication following a six-month exchange programme at Gordon College in the USA while at Daystar University in 2001.
How was it like to host the first KSC at Java Coffee House in Nairobi?
It was a mountain to climb as a novel idea in the capital city. We had to convince scientists that people would actually sip coffee and snacks while listening to them simplify scientific facts.
Prof Omu Anzala of the Kenya Aids Vaccines Initiative was our first expert.
The audience we invited found it hard to understand our intentions as majority of people have bought into the myth that science is difficult. We funded a series of cafÈs from our pockets before the IEA offered two years worth of financial support.
What is your target audience?
Diversity is our aim because we want to ensure that the message gets to all.
It was interesting when we had religious leaders in a discussion on the importance of HIV and Aids vaccines but the men of the collar argued the discovery would promote promiscuity. Our last cafÈ in Nakuru last month had youth as the majority as Dr Elizabeth Wala and Dr Amos Otara talked on breast and cervical cancer.
What guides you on selecting topics for discussion?
We rely on emerging concerns and even ask people via our mailing lists to send their topics of interest.
We also like to be in tandem with internationally recognised themes such as breast cancer, cancer and the World Aids day.
How do experts react when approached to answer scientific questions from an audience that sips coffee and black forest?
Most of them are anxious but leave the cafÈ excited following the questions fielded. We tell the audience to make use of the opportunity and ask questions — there are no stupid questions in science.
The belief that scientists do not want to share their ideas is a myth — what they need is a platform to ensure their research and facts are not lost or distorted.
Who are your role models?
I admire CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, media and law expert Catherine Bond and US first lady, Michelle Obama. My parents are also an inspiration and they have attended some of the cafÈs in Nairobi.
Where do you see yourself and the KSC five years from now?
I want to see us expand and venture into a manyatta in Narok or Samburu even if it means using a translator for the benefit of the locals. I would also like to climb the academic ladder and obtain a PhD.
Juliette Mutheu, 26
How would you grade the performance of the KSC over the past year?
Successful. We have hosted 13 cafÈs since we started and are happy when we get feedback from the audience acknowledging what they learnt and are now sharing information with their peers. I have also learnt a lot from working with the scientists, media and young people with innovative ideas. Juliette Mutheu
Do people take you seriously when you — as women — approach them to attend your sessions?
I hold a degree in Biomedical Science from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and do not believe science is a preserve of men. The scientists we approach to preside over our sessions treat us with respect — the same applies to the men we invite as the audience.
What challenges have you faced?
Convincing people that science is not hard and that it forms part of their daily lives. Scientists were at first reluctant to participate until they attended some and saw it as a success, heard from their peers or read articles in the mainstream media.
Is the KSC the first of its kind in Africa?
We are the fifth country to have a science cafÈ in the continent after Egypt, Cameroon, South Africa and Uganda. We are different as we try to discuss topics on health that directly affect the common man — we recently had a session on mental health with testimonies from former patients.
We want to address our basic health concerns before moving to the present developments in developed countries like nanotechnology.
What do you have for the prospective audience that stays out of Nairobi?
I was thinking of getting into radio because of its reach in rural areas and the fact that they are vernacular. Interactive live transmissions with listeners calling in would be the way to go.
Countries that invest in sciences have appealing Gross Domestic Products (GDPs). We should realise that the vision 2030 is highly pegged on applied sciences.
We are currently finalising plans to host a grand debate on science to make people start talking.
What was your childhood dream?
I changed my ambitions from wanting to make people happy — as a young girl — and nursed dreams of being a pilot and later a doctor before landing in science. I am actually making people happy through science. We are basically putting a human face to science.
How was it like coming up with the KSC?
Demanding. We sacrificed a lot — including meeting on the streets (at Kencom, to be exact) after work to plan the cafÈs.
We used our savings to kick-start and maintain the sessions before our major sponsors extended a helping hand.
We had to research and read on topics proposed for discussion before meeting the experts. We had to convince them that we knew what we are saying.
What inspires you and where do you see KSC five years on?
My grandmother, mother and little children are my role models. We can learn a lot from children who are honest in what they do or say. Five years should find me holding a masters degree and possibly a PhD as the KSC spreads its wings across the country.
What other contributions have you made in the science world?
I have delivered talks and made conference presentations on science platforms in conferences, including in South Africa and Tanzania. I have several peer reviewed publications and I organised a science careers day at Alliance Girls High School