They say disability is not inability and a group of visually impaired women are trying to live by the adage.
In the wellness center of Lemigo Hotel, a group of five young women with glasses to cover their eyes are patiently waiting for us. They are massage therapists, some of them still undergoing training at the Hotel.
On learning of our arrival one of them quickly ushers me to a corporate massage chair positioned close by and offers a free back massage. The soothing massage proves to me that they have mastered their echolocation.
Beth Gatonye, their trainer, is an aesthetician and massage therapist at Lemigo Hotel. She has been living and working in Rwanda for six years and has 15 years’ experience. Recently she adopted a social enterprise model to train vulnerable visually impaired people with limited employment opportunities as massage therapists and offer them employment.
“For the years that I have been working here I have been freely training women who see but are vulnerable and I am happy that they are currently working in other places. Trying to help people with visual impairments has always been on my heart and I am glad they are learning fast,” said Gatonye.
She was introduced by a friend, working with Rwanda Union of the Deaf to Rwanda Union of the Blind this year, who helped her identify those that needed help. She approached them, only to find out that some of the blind people were trained in massage therapy at HVP Gatagara many years ago, and are certified massage therapists, but had failed to find jobs and therefore the training acquired had begun to fade from their memories.
She offered them advanced training and other tactics of therapy basing on her experience, working with different countries.
“We have eight people so far and they are determined to work and be independent because they are so isolated and denied jobs. My mission is to give them quality training and jobs at the same time.”
“Many of these people have been raised to beg and be dependent on others and some of their families think that they cannot work but we want to prove them wrong. The government has given them education but employers out there have not been receptive of their skills,” she says.
38 year- old Venantia Mukaruliza became blind at the age of four due to an illness.
Despite the challenges she went through to attain an education, she passed her national exams and was lucky to join university where she pursued a course in physiotherapy.
“Even though I had the qualifications, I couldn’t find a job because they thought a blind person could not do it. Thanks to Gatonye, we got further training because some of us had already forgotten all that we learned,” she says.
Mukaruliza now gets three clients per day, on average, at the Kacyiru based Casa Keza, where she is based.
“I’m glad that people have begun appreciating my services and I’m getting regular clients,” she adds.
Some of her other colleagues are massage therapists at Kiseki Japanese restaurant, Heaven restaurant in Kigali and Gatonye plans to set up a corporate massage chair to offer foot and back massage for travelers.
“We want to partner with other hotels and institutions. The Private Sector Federation has also offered to give us space and the National Council of Persons with Disabilities is helping with advocacy.
Her current mission however, is to first address stigma that is common among ‘People Living with Disabilities.’
“One time a client requested for my services. I asked if I could send her some blind massage therapists. Her reply was no. why would you give me blind people to work on me yet they are capable and actually blind people are good with massage,” Gatonye says.
Celine Mbokanyinzi, 29, has four years’ experience in massage therapy but laments that getting a job for people like her has been a challenge despite being partially blind.
“Employers are afraid of giving us jobs because they think we are incompetent and even when you are lucky to get one; clients do not want us to work on them. Stigmatization discourages us and pulls us down. Even the way they address us and the names they calls us make us feel out of place and causes inferiority complex,” she says.
Despite the hurdles, Gatonye is optimistic that the initiative will turn out for the better.
“We are only charging 10,000 for the full body massage and 3,000 for corporate massage to attract clients, for them to see how good these people are. My plan is to train as many blind people as possible and get them jobs.
“These people that I’m training will train others in future and so the money will be used to train others. I want to see a blind massage therapist and maybe even other disabilities, at every hotel and spa in Kigali, as well as tourist destinations. I also want them to run their businesses and hopefully teach them how to make massage oils,” she says.
Early next year, she will be training other visually impaired people from Musanze, who will later go back to Musanze and hopefully get market from the tourist destination.