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Drinking up science in African cafés 0

Kampala – Science cafés — where scientists talk to local people at popular meeting places — are gaining popularity in Africa, as Esther Nakkazi reports.

Juliet Tiperu has been selling malwa, an alcoholic brew made of millet, for 20 years. Most of her customers at the ‘Sheraton’ restaurant in Entebbe, 35 kilometres outside Uganda’s capital Kampala, are men who start strolling in after five o’clock in the afternoon and drink until the end of ‘happy hour’ for 3,000 Ugandan shillings (US$1.2).

This ‘Sheraton’ is not a five star hotel, but a grass-thatched hut with no doors and windows. The meeting point in the hut is the malwa pot. On a typical warm Sunday afternoon, music booms and a small television sitting on a pile of old furniture shows lightly-clad girls dancing to bolingo Congolese music.

Arguments are usually about politics — or girls — and the voices of those around the pot get gradually louder, punctuated by sips of malwa.

Except on one day a month, when the venue becomes a science café.

Then there are more people than usual — and not because of the free malwa. “Today we shall discuss cervical cancer, and a vaccine, in the science café,” says Tiperu, as she refills the pot with hot water.

Science with your coffee

Science cafés are modeled on thecafés philosophiques that French philosopher Marc Sautet developed in Paris in the 1990s to take philosophical discussions into French coffee houses. Later, science journalist Duncan Dallas adapted the concept to create science cafés in the United Kingdom in 1998.

The idea surfaced in Nairobi, Kenya, where the first of several science cafés was held at the popular Java House café chain in April 2008, funded by Britain’s Wellcome Trust under a programme aimed at increasing public engagement with science.

“The cafés involved getting a scientist to discuss their work with a lay audience in an informal setting,” says Ruth Wanjala, a communications expert who was a co-founder of the Nairobi science cafés.

The cafés usually began with a short presentation by the scientist. Then non-scientists — including people who had been affected by a certain health condition — were invited to talk about their experiences, giving rise to a lively debate.

For instance, patients talked alongside oncologists on cancer; herbalists and traditional medicine experts spoke at one on traditional medicine; and both sufferers and experts at one on mental health.

Initially, Kenya’s scientific community was sceptical, wondering what they were supposed to say to a lay audience. But most soon warmed to the idea.

As for participants, some found it disturbing when, for example, two scientists differed on a topic, says Wanjala. Others complained when the scientists hijacked a café to promote their own products, or advance their political ambitions.

And while the Nairobi cafés were targeted at the more elite, urban-based communities, efforts to launch the same idea in Kibera, the city’s largest slum, were less successful. Those who attended the Kibera science café were hungry for food, not knowledge, and were unable to listen attentively to the speakers.

But overall the cafés were a success. “We still get requests to re-launch them,” says Juliet Mutheu, co-founder of the Nairobi project. “The most surprising achievement was finding a great appetite for properly disseminated scientific research in Kenya.”

Continue reading on SciDev.Net

By Esther Nakkazi

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