The African Science Café Movement

Science cafes are the first worldwide network devoted to publicly discussing science. The first café scientifique was held in the UK in 1998 and now there are 250 science cafes in 40 countries in the world, but only 4 in Africa, of which 3 are active, namely in Uganda, South Africa and Kenya. These shocking statistics were revealed during the second session on Thursday 4th December on creative approaches to science communication with a focus on science cafes. Sheila Ochugboju, the chair of the session, began with a brief historical overview of how the African science café movement began.

It started with a series of workshops sponsored by the British Council that resulted in the launch of the first African science café in March 2007. Two participants, Flavia and Ruth, who attended the British Council workshop have since launched their science cafes in South Africa and Uganda. Sheila highlighted that prior to the launch of the African science cafe, the organizers recognized the need to give café scientifique, as its popular known in the west, an African flavour. This contextualization in the African setting: by changing the name to science cafes, rebranding, carefully choosing venues, and enabling the creative freedom of facilitators to stimulate discussions gives African communities a greater sense of ownership of science cafes.

The Ugandan science cafes were the brain child of Patrice Mawa, MRC/UVI Ugandan Research Unit on AIDS. With some guidance from Duncan Dallas, the pioneer of café scientifique, Patrice held his first café in July 2007. His format favours the western model where a speaker is invited to talk briefly, followed by a break for food and drinks, then questions and discussion. The attendance in Uganda varies from 10 -30 but with larger numbers when the cafes are done in a local language. Patrice noted several challenges in running science cafes which include lack of resources, difficulty discussing sensitive, cultural or ethical issues, and poor attendance of women. It is hoped with funds received from the Wellcome Trust and the recent recruitment of a project coordinator, Betty Kituyi, that these challenges can be overcome.

Flavia Senkubuge, from the University of Pretoria, runs science cafes that are more cosmopolitan. This can be attributed to her target group, who are doctors within her institution. Her goal is to encourage doctors to engage more with the public. To convince the doctors the importance of public engagement, Flavia conducted a study that showed health promotion leads to an improved self perception of health as people are more informed and improve their health. She entices people to the cafes, by not only choosing attractive themes “The Science of Love” for cafes on cardiology or “The Science of Relationships” when talking about HIV and AIDS, but also by inviting a wide range of speakers not only doctors and researchers but psychiatrists and poets.

“Kenyan science cafes stress informality. In our introduction we always say there is no such thing as a stupid question” said Ruth Wanjala during her joint presentation on Kenyan science cafes. Her and Juliette Mutheu, Kemri-Wellcome Trust, have formed a formidable team that has conducted 3 science cafes this year. The pair have a concrete plan of action for 2009: monthly science cafes of which 4 have so far been funded, registration of the Kenyan Science Cafe as an organization, formation of an advisory committee, creation of a science database, organizing junior and rural science cafes, developing partnerships, and developing a structured evaluation sheet.

Several issues were discussed but five key questions interested a majority of the delegates. Firstly, science cafes seem to mainly target the middle class, what can be done to roll out these programs to reach other audiences particularly in the rural community? Secondly, using bars as venues limits women and religious groups like Muslims, is there any way these groups can be reached? Thirdly, how does one evaluate the impact of adult and junior science cafes? Can the questions that people pose be used for evaluation or collected as data? What are the complexities of conducting science cafes in schools? Several suggestions were given that answered both the issue of rolling out the program to rural communities and reaching other audiences such as choosing the right venue – social halls, women’s clubs, having the science café in a local language, and partnering with an active community member to organize and facilitate the cafes. The discussions were very lively which unfortunately did not leave enough time for the final presentation on junior science cafes by Mary Arber. This presentation would have discussed the complexities of conducting science cafes in schools and how Mary is measuring the impact of junior science cafes.

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