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Tea or coffee? No, we serve science instead

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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 

By Beatrice Gachenge

Posted  Monday, June 1  2009 at  00:00

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.

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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.

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