Juba, South Sudan – Juba, the capital of war-torn South Sudan, can be a dangerous and dysfunctional place.
But a small, one-room massage parlour is attempting to offer residents relief from the stresses, strains and tensions of life in a city wrecked by conflict.
There are other massage parlours in the city, but Seeing Hands is the only one that offers Japanese massage – a vigorous, muscular rub conducted without oil. What really sets the place apart, however, is its staff: all of the masseurs here are blind.
Multiple clients are massaged in the same room where, when the power generator is working, the whir and creak of the ceiling fans is the only audible sound. The masseurs perch acrobatically on the beds, kneading backs, legs and feet.
James Pitia is the supervisor at Seeing Hands.
“I remember the last cry,” he says, recalling the time he broke down as a doctor assured him that there was no cure for the onchocerciasis that had caused him to lose his sight. That was in 2001 when James was 17.
He had just returned home to what was then southern Sudan after three years spent in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, where he’d visited many doctors in an attempt to find a cure for his blindness. They had all given him different diagnoses.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), onchocerciasis, a tropical disease caused by parasites, is the second leading infectious cause of blindness, after trachoma. More than 99 percent of all cases are found in Africa.
‘We don’t have fear’
When James realised that his blindness was irreversible, his first worry was what would become of his education and how would he be able to support himself without one.
“Without education, I cannot be,” he says matter-of-factly.
So, he says, he was “very happy” to learn about the Rejaf Educational Centre for the Blind and Deaf – the only place in the country dedicated to hearing and visually disabled people.
“I was happy because you know, when I became blind I was thinking … what will I be in the future? I was thinking, how can I be supported? I have to continue with my education, so I can be independent in the future.”
At the centre, James found out about the Equatoria States Union of the Visually Impaired. An independent organisation with around 1,000 members, it supports blind people with livelihood and education programmes. James became a member.
“Here in South Sudan most blind people and persons with disabilities – few are educated,” he says. “There are no services to get around, no white canes to buy here.”
James became the secretary of education on the board of the Union, and has since become its vice chairman.
A lesson from Cambodia
It was at the Union that a priest, Father John Barth, offered him the opportunity to train as a masseur.
Barth began setting up massage training programmes for blind adults while working on a project to give landmine amputees new skills in Cambodia during the early 1990s.
His team there was struggling to work out what training to offer those who couldn’t see. Teaching English well enough so that the amputees could work as translators was a daunting and complex process. “Then I travelled to Thailand to get advice and ideas from two blindness rehab programmes run by the Catholic Church,” he recalls.
“They both had viable programmes training blind people in massage, specifically Thai massage. That was their No 1 recommendation.”
It took Barth five months to find a teacher who spoke Khmer and could teach massage. Then, a blind Cambodian man arrived at his office. He had returned to the country for the first time since the war in the 1970s.
“He agreed to teach five young adults Anma Shiatsu [Japanese-style massage], which he learned years earlier while living in Japan as a youth,” Barth explains.
That was how Seeing Hands was born in Cambodia in 1993.
When Barth moved to South Sudan, he took the lessons he’d learned in Cambodia with him.
The start of Seeing Hands – and war
James and four other members of the Union – Silvas Darago, Catherine Visensio, Wani Terenzio and Augustino Lonya – began training to become masseurs in August 2013.
None of them had even heard of massage before and they were all apprehensive.
The four-month training programme started with a month dedicated to anatomy followed by three on massage.
Their training ended on December 14, 2013. The next day, war broke out. South Sudan was less than two years old and the five masseurs’ careers had not even started.
But they persevered, undeterred by the violence and displacement that surrounded them, and soon Seeing Hands was opened in South Sudan. It is now located on one of the few paved roads in the city, opposite the main referral hospital.
The massages last an hour and cost 100 South Sudanese pounds (the dollar equivalent of the SSP fluctuates wildly, but that is currently about $2.70). Every month is a struggle to pay their 2,500 SSP (roughly $68) rent.
During the week, they can see as few as two or three clients a day. But, at the weekends, any number between eight and 15 may arrive in search of relaxation.
Christin, the receptionist, is the only member of staff who can see. She handles the money, pays the bills and does the laundry.
‘If your country is bad, you have to bear it’
Seeing Hands has developed a small but loyal following, says James, who explains that some of his regulars are also “becoming friends”.
Many are foreigners working in South Sudan. Elizabeth is from Kenya, but moved to South Sudan in 2011 to work in a hotel. “I like to come here and relax my body,” she says as her fifth visit draws to a close. “The … [masseurs] are humble and good.”
But Juba is a difficult place in which to live, she says, explaining that there “are too many thieves”.
It can be even harder for the blind masseuses to make their way in the city. Augustino says the traffic poses a particular problem. “It’s difficult as a blind person to move. If you’re not careful, a vehicle will knock you down.” Augustino knows this from experience as he was hit by a car whose driver fled the scene.
But many of the challenges the masseurs face are the same as those confronting other South Sudanese. In the dry season, temperatures in Juba easily top 38C. When the power goes off and the fans stop working, it can be hard for them to exert the kind of energy needed for their massages. And, James says, it can be harder still when they are hungry. “Because we are hungry, I cannot press you well,” he laughs.
Still, says Silvas, they remain steadfast.
“Your country, if it’s bad, you have to bear it,” he says. “We don’t have fear, that is why we are doing massage here.”