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Tea or coffee? No, we serve science instead

From right: Ms Katheke Mbithi, a breast cancer
From right: Ms Katheke Mbithi, a breast cancer survivor, Ms Mary Onyango, executive director of Kenya Breast Health Programme, Prof Walter Mwanda and Dr John Weru at a past session. /courtesy 

It is 7 pm on a Tuesday at a popular Nairobi café; waiters are busy serving croissants and coffee to the swelling crowd that is keenly listening to the speakers. As the clock ticks, members of the audience are fielding questions as the panellists take their time to give answers.

Welcome to the Kenya Science Cafés— a replica of Science Café forums where science specialists demystify the subject.

Today the talk is about cancer. Survivors are in the audience. Questions are asked about the role of alternative medicine in cancer treatment, whether big pharmaceuticals cash in on cancer patients and the link between HIV and cancer amongst others.

A member wants to know why marijuana or opium cannot be used by cancer patients to cope with the crippling pains.

“The aim of the cafés is to demystify scientific research for the general public and empower non-scientists to more comfortably and accurately assess science and technology, particularly those that impact on social policy making,” says Ruth Wanjala, one of the people behind the Kenya Science Café.

A science café/café scientifique is a forum for discussing and debating topical and thought-provoking scientific issues with the public in a relaxed, informal setting where one or several scientists are invited to talk in layman terms about their work.

Going by the name, the forums are either held in coffee bars or cafés.

This was the sixth monthly café taking place in Kenya, the brainchild of a French philosopher Marc Sautet in 1992.

The Café Scientifique initiative currently runs in 42 cities across the world.

Presently, only South Africa, Ghana, Malawi and Uganda run science cafés in Africa. Kenya is now part of the list.

Ms Wanjala and Juliette Mutheu were introduced to the concept in 2007 while attending a Science Communication Skills seminar in South Africa that was hosted by the British Council.

In May 2009, Dr Maurice Wambani, and Dr Peter Mungai Ngugi, both consultant surgeons and urologists at Upper Hill Medical Centre, were invited to the café to discuss male health issues.

The forum was open to men only. In March, the women had a similar seminar with Dr Carol Odula, a gynecologist/obstetrician and Denise Katana.

Away from medical issues, the thorny global matter of climate change has found its way into the science café.

Topics ranging from the myths, conspiracy theories, misconceptions and understanding of its impact on Africa are discussed.

In the months that Ms Wanjala and Ms Mutheu have held cafés; health has emerged as a major issue among a wide range of issues relating to science and technology.

Since inception, the Kenya Science Café has tackled discussions on the HIV vaccine, climate change, men and women’s Hhealth, role of maps in health, environment and agriculture among others.

“Kenyans are hungry for information. A lot of people face serious health issues because they were not aware or do so when it was too late,” said Ms Wanjala.

The growing number of participants, which has more than doubled since the inception of the cafés in April 2008, signals a new dawn as Kenyans bridge the information gap on matters that directly affect them.”

The free café talks have attracted many people seeking to find answers.

The cancer topic attracted the highest number of 72 participants. Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the country, but little is known about the disease.

It has also received little support from the government. Mary Onyango, executive director of the Kenya Breast Health Programme, clarifies why there are few organisations that deal with cancer yet Aids has numerous groups.

She says the money allocated to cancer is minimal compared to Aids, which receives large allocations hence little advocacy has been done, leading to the high death rate. Statistics are also a big challenge when it comes to cancer.

The initial Kenyan Science Cafés in 2008 and early 2009 were funded out of pocket by Ms Mutheu and Ms Wanjala as well as funds raised during collections at UK Science Cafes.

Currently, the science cafés are largely supported by the International Engagement Award from the Wellcome Trust, UK.

The cafés have also attracted sponsorship from The Osteria Group and Burness Communication, organisations keen to increase interaction between science and society in Kenya.

Ms Wanjala says marketing of the cafés is mainly through their mailing list, which currently has 300 people. At each café, the organisers also ask participants to recommend people to the café.

New media
“We are also working with new media such as Facebook and Twitter to advertise the Science Cafes,” said Ms Wanjala.

The shift towards public engagement models of science communication has placed more emphasis on the recipients — not as passive consumers, but as individuals with opinions and beliefs that are worth hearing and understanding.

To Ms Mutheu, a good café is when many people turn out, where almost everyone wants to ask questions, and when people stay behind to continue the dialogue even after the moderators and organisers have ended the sessions.

This is an effective tool for public engagement on such weighty matters affecting millions of Kenyans.

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