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Not a science cafe but you get point right ha!

Not a science cafe but you get point right ha!

The women who streamed into the Casablanca Bar in Hurlingham on March 24th were not looking for a frosty drink or a hot party. Instead, they came for cold, hard knowledge about health issues that could literally save their lives.

After kicking off their shoes or flopping on to cushioned stools in the bar with its low lighting, brightly coloured couches, and other vivid Moroccan furnishings, these patrons weren’t gathering to complain about work or gossip about men. They wanted the “411” on topics like hot flashes, contraceptives and cervical cancer.

Ranging in age from 19 to 49, these women were part of a growing worldwide movement that brings sciences to the masses known as Café Scientifique  or the Science Cafe. Started in Leeds, England in 1998 by scientist Duncan Dallas, Kenya is only the fifth African country to join the movement.

Knowledge is power; “for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, people can meet and discuss the latest ideas of science and technology.”

Dallas, who has a Chemistry degree from Oxford University and also produced features for the BBC, was inspired by the philosopher Mark Sautet   who founded Café Philosophiques in France. He says the reason for his project was simple; “too often science gets stereotyped in the general public as dull, remote, complicated, incomprehensible – or all the above.” But Dallas believes that when it comes to the impact that research can have on the quality of life, knowledge is power. And what better venue for empowerment than a place where people already gather as a matter of habit? Hence the marriage between the scientists and the Café. “This is a place where for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, people can meet and discuss the latest ideas of science and technology which are changing our lives,” he says.

Also, if the the image of science has received a bad rap through the years, the scientist has fared even worse. Many are labelled as eccentric or even downright mad. Stereotypes aside however, scientists themselves often acknowledge being so immersed in the technical aspects of their work that they are unable to explain it to the very people they’re trying to serve- the public.

But rather than ask the average citizen to attend scientific seminars to learn about issues, Dallas opted for a more realistic route- the Science Café. “The audience does not come for self improvement or to be lectured to. It comes to participate. The public wants to be informed, but also wants to discuss the consequences.”

Because March was International Women’s History Month, the two young women who brought the Science Café concept to Kenya selected Women’s Health as the theme for a women’s only Café. Consultant Ruth Wanjala, a former communications assistant for the African Technology Policy Studies Network was introduced to the Science Café concept in 2006 when she won an essay competition at a Café organized by the British Council in South Africa.

In April 2008, Wanjala and a young scientist friend, Ms. Juliet Mutheu hosted the first Kenyan Science Café. Mutheu a scientist with the KEMRI Wellcome Trust is also an external relations manager. The first Kenyan Science Café topic focussed on the Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative (KAVI). Ensuing topics included Child Health, the Malaria Vaccine and Male Circumcision.

Asked why she wanted to bring the Science Café to Kenya, Wanjala says: “Having worked in a communications department, I realized that the scientific output we were producing- the brochures, journals, articles- were rather out of touch with what the scientists were doing.” Wanjala continues, “the research message wasn’t really getting out. Whenever we would go for conferences, the sessions were long and too technical. People often fell asleep.”

She adds, “during the lunch break however, I noticed the public would engage with the scientists to ask questions or simply discuss. I thought an informal setting might encourage greater engagement between the public and the scientists.”

At the recent Café, the featured speaker was Dr. Carol Odula Obonyo a University of Nairobi obstetrician and gynaecologist who also operates her own practice. She was joined by her colleague Catherine Musyoka who is a nurse. The two specialists drew on their experiences to answer questions in layman’s language. Areas covered ranged from menopause, diet, exercise, infertility, hormone replacement therapy, fibroids, contraceptives, cervical cancer and the HPV virus, pap smears and sexually transmitted diseases.

Dr. Obonyo thinks the Science Café could be an important venue for spreading health information for women. “Men have over time perfected the art of bar networking, but this now encompasses more purposes than just business,” she says, “it is fairly common to find men sharing with their mates about issues affecting them, be it their health, their kids or their marriages.”

Obonyo contrasts, “today’s woman in her quest to be super woman- mother, sister, wife, a professional- often gets stuck in a rut with very little time for herself and the matters that directly affect her.” This she believes makes the Science Café a really important concept, “we can forget the diapers, the formulas, jobs, and just talk,” she says, “we can catch up and discuss our health and nothing’s more important because a woman is the backbone of her family, when she is well she can give more support,” she concludes.

At Casablanca Bar, the questions were as varied as the topics and they ranged from the sobering to the hilarious. There were frequent gasps of shocked realization and sometimes even horror after learning the possible cost of one’s ignorance.

For example, one woman said she came to the Café to get information for her neighbour whom had been plagued by ovarian cysts and couldn’t get pregnant. At the same time however, she had been afraid to seek treatment for the condition. Besides warning that the neighbour’s cysts could signal serious health problems, Dr. Obonyo also suggested that the husband also be checked for infertility.

Another woman wanted to know her chances of conceiving at age 42 while she also had fibroids. In this case, Dr. Obonyo advised that it depended on where the fibroids were located in the uterus. She said conception was next to impossible if a fibroid is close to the fallopian tubes for instance. She however urged the woman to get tests since in some instances, it is still possible to conceive.

Obonyo also noted the potential of such Cafés in preventive health. “Why should we rush when we fall sick to seek a cure when all we needed was the right information to protect ourselves from disease even if that means getting free medical advice in a bar or Café?” she asked.

So far, only six Kenya Science Cafés have been held. Last year, funding was a problem. But the Café organizers recently won a grant from the International Engagement Award of the Wellcome Trust and will now host the event monthly. Even with minimal advertisement for the events, the turnout has been laudable. Most of the advertisement has been through simple word of mouth. And of course these days if it’s cool and involves the public you can find it on Facebook. The group’s name is Kenya Science Café.

Kenya Science Cafés are currently just being held in Nairobi but there are plans to take the concept to Mombasa and Kisumu. The organizers also plan to vary the settings to reach people of all socio-economic backgrounds. But wherever they are held, the Science Café organizers believe they can make a long term contribution to better health in Kenya.

For example, many women who attended the recent event vowed to get their pap smears and mammograms done as quickly as possible. The events can also help put scientists more in touch with public needs. Last but not least, “the public will also understand science related public policies,” Wanjala says, “we won’t have people thinking; I need to get a vaccine because my local district officer told me to, they will know precisely why it is important.

Food rules!

Food rules!

Note: This was actually my first publication for the Daily Nation prior to which I had written for the ‘rival’ newspaper The Standard. This piece was published on the 31st of March in 2009.

I hope the that the Kenya Science Cafés are still going strong! It is a great concept for science dissemination.

If anyone’s interested in the seeing the article as it appeared in the paper please see attached pdf and please forgive the rather unfortunate title!

Newspaper editors sometimes huh.

Kenyan Science Cafe