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Tired of Rejection from Employers, Gambia’s Deaf Women Create Their Own Job

Tulkuya Signs Restaurant, located about 50 meters away from Brusubi’s bustling Turntable, offers an enriching dining experience through wide menu of delicious food and drinks. From the set up, everything looks like any other restaurant. But this is not your average restaurant. Tulkuya means deaf in the local mandinka dialect, and as the name implies, the entire staff is deaf.

Getting a job in The Gambia is no fun for most people. But when you’re deaf, it’s even more difficult. Many deaf women have complained that they suffered multiple rejections by employers just because of their deafness. So in 2017, the Gambia Deaf Women Society started the restaurant to turn the adversity into an opportunity.

“We’ve tried to find employment for the deaf women but people didn’t want to employ them. So we started this to employ them,” says Binta Badjie, the Secretary General of the society. She’s also deaf. “We felt this would create access for them and show employers that deaf people can also do something.”

Binta Badjie

At the bar counter, Fatou Wadda, a waitress, is busy cleaning glasses. She’s one of the dozen deaf women who work here full time. Since she graduated from school, before this restaurant started, she was knocked back from jobs for being deaf. Everywhere she went, the response was negative. Thanks to Tulkuya Signs Restaurant, she’s not only pursuing her passion now, but she’s also empowering herself economically.

“I used to sit at home or visit deaf friends,” she says. “I entirely depended on my family. I used to borrow money from people a lot and that made me sad. But now I feel very happy. I even help people. This restaurant has greatly helped me.”

Communication between the staff and customers is through sign language or lip reading. Some customers make orders by writing down what they want. At the beginning, it was difficult for customers to fathom deaf people could run a restaurant, or even serve them, considering the language barrier. Most of the customer reactions are linked to stereotypes and misconceptions about deaf people in the Gambian society.

“Many at times people would come in and want to leave because they’d say ‘I cannot communicate with you’. Some customers would leave because they don’t have the patient,” says Binta.

About two years down the line, Tulkuya Signs Restaurant is attracting and keeping more customers. It’s not only serving their stomach, but it’s also opening their minds and hearts about deafness.

“I can’t do without coming here”, says Prof. Daniel Atidoga, a Nigerian law professor at the University of The Gambia, one of the regulars at Tulkuya Signs. “I don’t have an enviable knowledge of the sign language, but I do the traditional one which conveys meaning to them. In the event that it doesn’t, we resort to writing it out. It’s a very wonderful experience. I know all of them here. They’re wonderful people.”

Advocacy session underway at Tulkuya Signs Restaurant

Tulkuya Signs is more than a restaurant. It’s also an advocacy center for the staff. When they are not busy serving customers, they are busy discussing about their plights. Fanta Gaye, the Treasurer of the Gambia Deaf Women Society comes to the restaurant everyday to supervise the staff and make them feel at home.

“Deaf people are normally more comfortable when they are with us here,” she says. “When they’re home their family members would be talking to themselves and leave the deaf people out. But when they visit the restaurant, we talk to them and exchange ideas with them. They feel very happy.”

For Fatou, Tulkuya Signs is an opportunity to restore her dignity and appreciate herself as a deaf woman.

“Before working here, I faced discrimination at home. My friends didn’t accept me. But now I feel I’m part of a community. When I’m unhappy the community supports me. When I’m happy they support me. I’m always with them. So this work place has helped me.”

Fanta Gaye (left) and Fatou Wadda (right) share happy moment at Tulkuya Signs Restaurant with colleagues

Tulkuya Signs is serving deaf culture to the hearing. The employees are using food to transcend the distance and barriers between the deaf and the hearing.

For Binta, her story is inspiring and empowering deaf people across the country. She’s selected as 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow by the U.S. authorities. Earlier this month, she bagged a Bachelor’s degree in Human Resources and Labor Management from the American International University in The Gambia, an achievement she describes as every deaf person’s achievement.

Binta Badjie at Tulkuya Signs on her gradutation day

“Generally, deaf people are happy. Many of them came here to congratulate me. My pictures and videos have been shared on all deaf Whatsapp groups. I feel very happy and I know I’m in a very important position. Many people are looking up to me as a role model. This is bringing a big change in the deaf community,” says Binta.

The mission of Binta and her colleagues is to promote employment opportunity and socio-economic advancement for deaf women across The Gambia.

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