Written by Keri Harvey
South Africa’s first blind barista, Joseph Matheatau is living his bliss . Trained by the world’s best coffee shop — Truth Coffee in Cape Town — Joseph is even more inspiring than the excellent coffee he brews.
The only clue that Joseph Matheatau is blind is his white cane. When he’s being ‘Joseph the Barista’ there is no evidence at all. He glides between grinding beans, frothing milk and then presents a final perfect cuppa, with senses so finely tuned he knows the sound of perfectly frothed milk. “It’s the sound of paper tearing,” he says, “a gentle sound. Never a disturbing sound, like iron grinding. That is not good froth at all.” Softly spoken and genteel, Joseph cuts a dashing image and has a deep calmness about him. He’s a rare mix of ambition and grace, resilience and gentleness, humility and strength. His presence is quite disarming and a meeting with Joseph is one you won’t forget, for all the right reasons.
Joseph takes a break from coffee making, and explains that he was born sighted. “When I was four or five years old, I started losing my sight and was diagnosed with glaucoma. The doctor gave me eye drops and I was sent to a mainstream school, but it was extremely difficulty for me. I remember sitting in the front row in class, but Istill couldn’t see. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with my eyes and the teachers actually made fun of me. They told me to wear thick, bottle bottom glasses so I could read what was written on the blackboard. Still, I really loved school and just wanted to learn.”
Born in a rural area near Welkom in the Free State, Joseph didn’t have the option of attending a specialised school for the blind. Instead, he says: “The teachers thought I was lazy because I played with the other children, yet I struggled so much with my schoolwork because I couldn’t see. I would strain my eyes and take a lot of time to read just a few lines, but I believe it also made me strong and I finished school. Even though people made fun of me, I know I am unique and that’s what I focus on. All these experiences have made me who I am today.”
Joseph says that, as a child, people joked and said he was like an old man because he was always drinking hot beverages regardless of the weather. “My mom said nobody could make tea and coffee like I did, that it tasted different. She said I added magic, and so I enjoyed making beverages even more.” After losing his sight completely in 2010, Joseph moved to Worcester in 2014, because of the uniquely tailored facilities the town offers the blind. He started learning Braille and quickly mastered it, and also became adept on a computer using audio software.
Then a life changing opportunity presented itself when two years ago Truth Coffee wanted to train a blind barista for the new Kaleidoscope Coffee Shop in Worcester. “I was so happy to be chosen,” beams Joseph. “When I phoned my mom and told her she just couldn’t believe it.” Trained by top Truth baristas José Vilandy and Thomas Boroma, Josephsays the experience was a privilege. “It was a personal challenge because the machines are extremely hot. I was wondering how I would manage not to burn myself with the boiling water and I was also concerned about breaking cups. But they were so patient with me and I thought back on the challenges I had already overcome, and realised I could do whatever I set my mind to. I have a perfect sense of smell and hearing and taste, so I really had nothing to fear.”
Because Joseph couldn’t see if milk was frothed just right, he listened instead. “Perfectly frothed milk is a ts-ts-ts sound. It’s a pleasant sound, never harsh.” The course had plenty of theory about the history of coffee, its correct storage, temperature control and freshness. Joseph passed all this easily. The practical took him a little longer to master, because using the potentially dangerous machinery was by feel and sound. But that’s all done now and without any burns or broken cups to report.
Since qualifying, Joseph has already trained another blind barista and plans to train more in the near future. He also has his very own coffee blend, which he personally created—and it tastes extraordinary, smooth and light. “It’s a medium roast called Blindiana,” he says, “and although good coffee is a personal preference, Blindiana is definitely well-balanced.”
Now, as a barista at Blindiana Coffee Shop in Church Street, Worcester, Joseph is living his dream. “There is a unique energy around coffee making and I can tell when clients are flocking into the shop—it’s a special feeling, a beautiful feeling. When I meet people my instinct is strong. I can feel energy and I know how many people are around me, many or just one. I can also feel it when people look at me.
Sometimes people are shocked and surprised at my acute senses. I can feel the seasons too and I know when it’s spring. One thing I do wish to see is the spring flowers, because they are so beautiful.” Still, bad winter weather is Joseph’s favourite. “Feeling the mist or rain on my face energises me. I love to walk in the rain. If I could see I would be running.” Since moving to Worcester, Joseph has learnt to walk independently with his cane. “I count my steps and then I know where I am going. If I have been anywhere, I will be able to go back. You just need to focus and concentrate and have a good memory. The community here is amazing though, so patient and kind and the drivers are reallyincredible. Worcester is the best place in the world for blind people. I didn’t really plan to come to Worcester and I didn’t know what it had in store for me.
But I am happy to be here, go with the flow and things will unfold as they are meant to.” “I know my wardrobe from how the fabric feels and where the buttons on shirts and pants and jackets are. I remember colours from when I could see, so I memorise my clothing styles and colours and I know which clothes go together.” When Joseph steps out he’s always elegant and impeccable, and yes, he does drink plenty of coffee too. Joseph’s personal favourite is a medium roast, double shot, cappuccino. “Single shots are too weak for me to taste well, especially with added milk,” he explains. “But with a double, I can tell if it’s balanced or not. I believe every person adds their own magic to the coffee they make, so the coffee I make is as unique as I am.
Joseph says that one day he plans to have his very own coffee shop. In preparation he has already completed courses in marketing, sales management and entrepreneurship and will be studying Industrial Psychology part time through UNISA next year. “I believe I will do well because my inner voice guides me. Sure, I will have challenges along the way, but I am strong and I will overcome them to reach my goal. I always wanted to be a businessman and that is still my goal. I didn’t apply to be blind and for a long time I prayed not to be, but now I am grateful for all I have.”
Would he change his life if he could? “I am quite content and believe this is my purpose. I don’t want prayers anymore for my sight to be restored. I had the opportunity to see when I was younger, and now at 38 I am really happy the way I am. When you go through a tough time you become an example. I believe I can touch people’s lives and this is my real purpose. If I can change people’s perceptions for the better or inspire or revitalise people, that is what truly fulfils me. I enjoy my blindness and I believe this is where I am destined to be. I am on a different planet now.