Why ‘Special needs’ are not a liability at WaMa


Yvonne Marando (centre) plays Yvonne the outsider during ‘Wama Mia’ rehearsal on January 10, 2022. PHOTO | POOL

When Adam Sargeant arrived in Kenya 12 years ago, he already had an idea for blending his background in education, hospitality as well as tourism and putting it to work in Nairobi.

He didn’t know at the time that his idea would materialise as a social enterprise boutique hotel with a restaurant, salon, and spa. Nor was he clear that he would be training young Kenyans living with special needs in the fine points of customer service and hospitality.

“I grew up with both my parents deeply involved in volunteerism so I think that influenced me a lot,” says the CEO of WaMa restaurant.

Sargeant only opened WaMa (short for Wisdom, Ability, Motivation and Access) last July. But already, his staff and trainees include youth with disabilities and special needs. Some are deaf, blind, mute and physically impaired or else they are in some way mentally challenged, or afflicted with albinism.

In short, in a job market where thousands of university graduates have problems finding work, the youth that Sargeant welcomes to WaMa are the least likely to find jobs anywhere.

But as a social enterprise, Sargeant’s vision is to provide work opportunities and paid on-the-job training for some of the most vulnerable members of society. The training itself covers a full range of hospitality roles, everything from receptionist, waiter, and kitchen staff to supervisor, room attendant and spa therapist.

But Sargeant’s programme focuses on customer service to equip his trainees to enter the corporate world with confidence, skill, and self-assurance.

But Sargeant says he didn’t have a blueprint or standardised curriculum for his concept of training. But as he had worked for years with corporates and venture capitalists, he had a broad background in working effectively with groups.

“There just came a time when I decided making profits in the corporate world wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life,” he says.

One challenge Sargeant wanted to address was building team spirit among his WaMa staff and trainees. For that, he enlisted Nairobi Performing Arts Studio’s Stuart Nash to help build that sense of camaraderie through performance.

“We’ve been working on the musical since last September,” says Nash who is also about to start rehearsals for Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s and Ngugi wa Mirii’s ‘I’ll Marry when I want”.

Entitled ‘Wama Mia”, it’s filled with songs by the pop group Abba. Choreographed by Flirti Carlos, the storyline itself has evolved through discussions between Nash, the trainees, and Sargeant.

“We gave them [the trainees] the basic storyline. Then it was they who improvised the scenes together with Flirti Carlos who everybody loves,” says Nash. “I just step in to assist with blocking the scenes,” he adds.

The story centres around Yvonne, an Albino girl who has just graduated from college. Like many graduates, she cannot find work. She’s highly qualified, but having albinism makes doors slam shut in her face consistently. Her situation changes dramatically once she finds a place that bears a peculiar resemblance to WaMa.

The learning process only gets more interesting, however, once she gets the job and finds she needs to learn how to get along with not only the clients but with her fellow trainees, most of whom have never associated with an albino before.

But as WaMa’s slogan is “fusion and inclusion”, Yvonne has no choice but to make peace with her peers as well as with the public. It’s a process that comes after Yvonne makes a mess and nearly gets the sack.

She makes amends in an imaginative way that works for the staff, her boss, and the restaurant reporter who initially gives her place a terrible food review before she gets creative and helps train and build up skills among the staff.

Wama Mia will premiere at the end of February.