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Ekeomah Atuonwu

Since 2017, 43-year-old Beth Gatonye has taught dozens of visually impaired women – and a few men – the art of massage in order to create jobs for Rwanda’s marginalized community.

Even today, demand for massage services offered by her company Seeing Hands is limited to foreigners.

“Rwandans say they don’t want a blind person touching their body because it can bring bad luck,” explains Beth Gatonye.

“It’s as if they believe blindness is contagious.”

Stigma, according to the Rwandan Federation of the Blind (RUB), prevents visually impaired citizens from pursuing educational or professional opportunities.

Since 2017, 43-year-old Beth Gatonye (left) has taught dozens of visually impaired women the art of massage /YAHOO

They had to wait even longer to gain access to university education, which was only made available in 2008.

“The Rwandans think we’re useless people,” Immaculée Karuhura, one of the Seeing Hands masseuses, says. “They think we only survive by begging.”

Despite the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on their business, with massage services prohibited during Rwanda’s strict lockdowns, Gatonye is now experiencing a surge in demand.

Businesses like Seeing Hands hold out the promise of financial freedom to blind Rwandans /AFP/

According to the Rwanda National Blindness Survey 2021, untreated cataracts and glaucoma are the leading causes of visual impairment. Up to 80% of cases are thought to be preventable or reversible.

The job means a lot to her. “I feel happy when I serve a client,” she says, emphasizing how the job has given her life meaning and a sense of integration: “I feel like I’m communicating with my clients during a therapy session, and that really moves me.”

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Ekeomah Atuonwu

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Immaculée Karuhura giving a massage to a client at “Seeing Hands” office in Kigali, Rwanda on 18 march 2022. Immaculée lost her sight at the age of 3 years old. After her training at Seeing hands she managed to get an employment in a hotel as a professional massage therapist. The organisation “Seeing hands” opened in 2017 to train rwandans with visual impairment as massage therapists and help them finding an employment as rwandans with such disabilities still face lots of discriminations. Seeing hands has trained 30 rwandans over the years. The NGO argues that visual impaired people have a heightened touching sense giving them an advantage for massage therapy.