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The Kenyan Café welcoming people with cognitive disorders

Ayira's Neuro Soul Café   -  
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The doors are open, and 18-year-old Natasha Mwangi is welcoming guests into Ayira's Neuro Soul Café.

The establishment aims to be a welcoming space for everyone, including guests who have cognitive disabilities.

It's also a source of employment for young people like Mwangi, who was born with cerebral palsy.

Job opportunities are scarce for young people with neurological disorders such as autism, dyslexia and ADHD as well as cerebral palsy.

Owner and founder Diana Ayoo established the business after her young daughter was diagnosed with a neuro divergent condition.

Ayoo is a mechanical engineer, but her experiences prompted her to become a qualified behaviour analyst.

"The inspiration behind starting Ayira's Neuro Soul Cafe, Ayira is named after my 6-year-old daughter called Ayira. She has a very unique condition called Primrose syndrome together with autism. As a mother and in this part of the world, I know that the neurodivergent are stigmatized and they are not really taken care of. I wanted to show the world that even them, they can be given a chance in society and contribute," says Ayoo.

Awareness of such conditions is being successfully raised by the café and its workers.

The venue is slowly gaining popularity with people who come from all over the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

Here, people with all types of neurological problems can meet and discuss their lives with others.

Family members too can discuss their experiences with other relatives.

The café also hosts workshops focussed on neurodiverse topics.

"What I have noticed is that when people come to the restaurant and when you talk to them and explain to them what we do and who our people are, someone will always say, 'I have a brother, I had a sister, I have a cousin, I have a niece, I have a neighbour'. So this means that it touches people," says Ayoo.

"It is just that the awareness has not been so much out there for people to be able to know and accept and, you know, just understand the different conditions."

Ayoo says many parents come looking for job opportunities, but she’s aware her resources can’t stretch to help everyone:

"I have many parents wanting for me to employ their children, but there is no space and I always tell them, you know, I cannot take all of them and they come and just sit and idle around, and of course, I won't be able to pay them because if there is no business. So, those are some of the things, some of them are even volunteers yet to be paid because the parents say that the fact that she just leaves home and comes to work gives her a meaning. So, there are some of them that I am yet to start paying for."

At this Applied Behaviour Analysis training session, parents learn to understand their children’s conditions and about techniques that can help with disorders like autism.

Oscar Oduor is the father of an autistic child, he says:

"This shows that we need to give the neurodivergent people a chance in society. We need to show that they can also work like any other person."

For some cafe staff,, the experience has been transformative.

Twenty-five-year-old Simon Njuki has dyslexia and says people with intellectual disabilities are at a an unfair disadvantage.

"People are not recognized here so you can find some, we don't get jobs easily because it is difficult because you find like us, we are not able maybe to communicate better than the rest or write like others, so it is a bit challenging because you find many institutions, they don’t take people with intellectual disability," says Njuki.

Njuki says at the cafe, he feels accepted and appreciated.

"I like it here because the owner actually recognizes people with intellectual disabilities and I love what it brings to people with intellectual disabilities, gives them work, shows them love and that is what I like about here and it gives me another opportunity to go further," he says.

The work of people like Ayoo is helping to raise awareness, but neurodivergent people still face prejudice and stigma, says clinical psychologist Lucy Njiru.

"Often times, people stigmatize them and do not want to offer them jobs and the support they require to be able to stay in jobs and so they continue to remain poor and to suffer and that also leads to the development of several other mental conditions such as low self esteem, depression and also suicidal ideation."

Making a difference, one guest at a time.

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