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Deaf barista and chef overcoming sound barriers

  • September is Deaf Awareness Month

  • Sign language is now South Africa’s 12th official language.

Phumzile Mazibuko (38) has made thousands of coffees but has never heard the sound of a coffee grinder or the gurgling noises of the milk steaming. Chef Lindokuhle Mashiane (29) does not know what the clatter of appliances, meat sizzling or bubbling boiling sounds like. However, despite being deaf, both have managed to break the barriers to employment for the hard-of-hearing and deaf community.

Born deaf, Lindokuhle attended the Trans Oranje School for the Deaf and was inspired by her mother and grandmother who loved cooking and baking. After completing a training course at the Capital Hotel Group, she joined ANEW Hotel Highveld in Witbank in 2017 where today she is a pastry chef specialising in delectable cakes and crunchy salads.

Lindokuhle has an incredible sense of smell and has the extraordinary ability to smell the difference between bakers.

“By just smelling a freshly baked treat, I can identify who in the kitchen made it. Once there was too much sugar in a malva pudding, and without tasting it, I alerted one of the bakers, and was proved right when we tasted it!”

She says working in an able-hearing environment is not all that easy but if you have a supportive team, the challenges are manageable.

“My team really has so much compassion. To get my attention in the kitchen they would switch the lights on and off, write me notes, or tap on my shoulder. All of them have also learned basic sign language and we have fun as they learn new signs to communicate with me.”

The friendly smile of barista Phumzile is a firm favourite at the ANEW Hilton Hotel near Pietermaritzburg. She communicates with her customers through a sign-language chart, encouraging customers to either point at the board or try their hand at signing for their warm beverage.

“My customers are great fun! They learn to sign for their coffees and those returning to our hotel, without looking at the board, will immediately let me know what they would like. They and my fellow colleagues are so supportive in trying to learn sign language and creating a warm, welcoming atmosphere.”

Phumzile was born deaf and grew up in Ladysmith. Through the eDeaf Training Academy she completed the Ciro Barista course.

“I fell in love with coffee! Early in my course, I realised that making coffee was something visual that I could easily learn the trade. Making lovely coffee art has become a passion for me. Seeing my customers’ smiling faces when they appreciate my creative touch brings me great joy.”

She has two children – a girl who is able-of-hearing and a boy who is deaf –and they both sign fluently.

Both Phumzile and Lindokuhle say there are many misconceptions regarding persons with disabilities.

“I can do anything anyone else can. The only difference is that I can’t hear which should never be a disadvantage for anyone to follow their dreams and make a success of their careers. I was lucky to find a craft that I truly enjoy and am really good at!” says Lindokuhle.

Phumzile says it’s so important for deaf people to be in more visible jobs such as baristas and have regular interactions with the public.

“Our interactions lower the social stigma and, in turn, lead to more people understanding persons with disabilities. I really would like to train to become a sign language teacher to be helpful not only to those I work with and my customers but also assist the deaf community in having more people in this country that can sign.”

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