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Imagine eating a grilled tomato in a pitch black room, finding it with your fork, feeling it on your tongue. The waiter serving it is blind and has hardly ever eaten at a restaurant himself. Well, welcome to Dinner in the Dark in Nairobi. Our correspondent Gregory Warner takes us through training week at the restaurant.
GHOW RATNARAJAH: Three, two, one, action.
IGNATIUS AGON: Yes, good evening, everyone.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #1: Good evening.
AGON: Yes, my name is Ignatius, and I'm going to guide you into the dark.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: It's day one of the training - Monday - and Ignatius Agon is about to get lost. His task is to lead six people in a conga line into the the dining room, find their table and then seat them.
AGON: Just come with me, and I promise you're going to enjoy your dinner in the dark.
WARNER: Today, for training purposes, the lights are on so I can see him losing his way, bumping into walls.
AGON: Please, I'm sorry for the inconvenience.
WARNER: Here he's about to bump into a speaker, but by the weekend the roles will reverse. The lights will be off. I won't know where I am, and Ignatius, having mastered the space, will be my guide and waiter.
AGON: Yeah, we are now at the table.
RATNARAJAH: You're at the wrong table apparently
WARNER: That's the trainer, in from London, Ghow Ratnarajah. He's also blind and he's less harsh on Ignatius for getting lost than for the social faux pas, like calling customers my friend instead of sir or ma'am or touching them anywhere except their arm or shoulder.
RATNARAJAH: Why are you touching my tummy?
WARNER: Why are you touching my tummy, he says. And this exercise is also challenging for Ignatius in a way that I can't see - Ignatius, who lost his sight to meningitis at age 10, has almost never been to a restaurant himself. It's too expensive. So he doesn't have that waiterly shpiel running in his head as a kind of guide to how to do it, and doing it right is important to him.
AGON: Yeah, because, you know, let me tell you, if someone comes, I serve him so well, I talk to him good. He will say no. Today I have been served by a blind man...
AGON: In a very big restaurant.
WARNER: Training day two - Tuesday.
JENNIFER WANJIRA: Jennifer - copy.
WARNER: Walkie-talkies are used to take orders in the blackness.
WANJIRA: Right away, sir.
WARNER: Jennifer Wanjira is the oldest trainee at age 32. She takes her instructions from Fabrice Roszczka, one of the trainers here who's flown in from Paris where Dinner in the Dark was founded in 2004.
FABRICE ROSZCZKA: Four surprise on top - round plates.
WARNER: Meat dishes are on a round plate; the vegetarian is on a square. Wanjira gets so nervous keeping track of it all that she serves a round plate into the round back of someone's skull.
WANJIRA: How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm fine.
WANJIRA: OK, I need - oh, my God, sorry. These two are - they're too close (laughter).
ROSZCZKA: It's OK. Wait, wait, wait, are you aware that you have to hear to learn, you know?
WARNER: More than a million customers have eaten at Dinner in the Dark somewhere in the world. This new Nairobi franchise is run by Abdul Kamara, a 35-year-old visually impaired lawyer from Sierra Leone and the United States.
ABDUL KAMARA: We are training 12 blind individuals as professionals in the hospitality industry. That will get them far.
WARNER: Twelve jobs could mean something in a country where unemployment among the blind is officially 98 percent. In the U.S. it's around 75. And in Kenya, there's no Social Security. There's no income help for people with disability.
KAMARA: That does not exist here.
WARNER: So blindness in Kenya means total dependence on your family. Jennifer Wanjira lost her sight seven years ago from untreated Type 1 diabetes. She lost her job and her husband left her the same year, and since then, she says she's always had to ask people for help.
WANJIRA: Now I'm helping another person. It's really amazing for me. I'm guiding somebody else. I've never guided anybody. So (laughter) it gives me a chance to guide.
WARNER: It'll also earn her her first paycheck since going blind. And when I asked her what she'll spend it on, she says she'd like to pay it forward, cover someone else's school fees for a change.
WANJIRA: Yeah, or even a hospital bill for somebody.
WARNER: Wait, wait, that's what you want to spend your salary on? You want to buy somebody a...
WANJIRA: Yeah, or even to buy somebody a blanket. I can tell - that for me, that has been my dream.
WARNER: I ask her if she's nervous about waitressing and, to my surprise, she doesn't mention the incident with the plate - hitting somebody in the head. She doesn't think that'll happen again. She's used to learning her way in the dark. The greater challenge is learning all the hidden social norms of eating out. The customers expected here will be embassy staff and U.N. workers, expats and Kenyan professionals.
WANJIRA: People in high places. They're not poor (laughter).
WARNER: The final training day is Friday, a dress rehearsal with real customers. And after all this careful orchestration of the meal, there's a final serenade by all the waiters in the dark.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Malaika, nakupenda Malaika.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: (Singing) Malaika, nakupenda Malaika.
WARNER: That's the moment they didn't have to practice for. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: (Singing) Malaika, nakupenda Malaika (singing in foreign language).
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