JUBA, May 20 (Xinhua) — As civil war and a biting economic crisis continue to ravage South Sudan, a group of blind South Sudanese in the capital Juba is using massage therapy to relieve people from body pains and stress.
Established in 2013, Seeing Hands is a social enterprise scheme made of up five members, all blind, and the group offers massage therapy to local and foreign clients at a fee.
James Pitia, 32, became blind in 2000 due to Onchocerciasis or river blindness (a tropical disease common in South Sudan) and the illness left him devastated because he was unable to fend for himself.
After laborious search for help, Pitia said he got assistance from South Sudan’s only education facility for the blind and deaf, the Rejaf Educational Center for the Blind and Deaf where he was trained on mobility, massage and using gadgets for the visually impaired.
“Our massage is not just for money. It is a treatment for the muscles, mind and body. Many people experiencing physical or emotion pain come here and we help relief them from that,” Pitia told Xinhua.
The group charges 15 U.S. dollars for foreigners and 6 dollars for locals per hour. The masseurs attend to at least 30 clients per month and they share the proceeds among themselves and also invest the rest for future development.
“Since we started this business, we are now able to help our families and even ourselves. Most of our members are paying their own tuition fee, transport and many things. This work is helping us in many ways,” said Pitia.
Augustino Lonya, 38, got blind at 22 years old and until 2014, he struggled to fend for himself and family.
The father of one said since he started doing massage in 2014, he can now afford to provide basic needs to his family.
“I used to struggle to make money, but when I started this work, it has helped me a lot. I can now help my family, relatives and my neighbours,” Lonya said.
“I tell my fellow people with disabilities to be creative and do something for themselves,” he added.
For 38-year-old Silvas Darago, the massage therapy center rescued him from turning into begging after he got blind in early 2013.
Darago uses his monthly income to pay tuition fee at university and also support his relatives.
“When I got blind, I was shocked and I lost hope but when I came to this group, I got encouragement and I now have hope for my future,” the third year student of psychology at the University of Juba told Xinhua.
According to a disability assessment survey conducted by the government in 2011, about 424,000 people live with disabilities in South Sudan, with the majority of them getting disabilities from eye diseases, polio and physical injuries during war and violent conflicts.
The report says 85 percent of persons with disabilities live in rural areas with limited access to basic services.
The report further notes that people with disabilities face enormous challenges such as access to health services, education and mobility as most of the country’s public infrastructure does not have special access zones for people with physical and visual impairment.
Pitia who serves as supervisor of the group decried widespread discrimination of blind people and lack of social services such as schools, mobility infrastructure and economic empowerment programs for disabled people.
“We (people with disabilities) are looked as people of no importance. We also face issues of mobility in the city, we don’t have infrastructure. Sometimes we fall into the drainage channels on the streets,” Pitia lamented, hoping the situation will improve in the future.