What we do

Definition of a blind person in http://searchbox.hyperdictionary.com/dictionary/blind+person  “a person with a visual handicap severe enough to leave them unemployable”

We took the “unemployable” blind individuals that were selected for us by the Timbuktu Association of the blind, trained them in 3 weeks and then employed them in our massage centre.  Or if they wanted to start their own business, they could go with our blessings.

There is an old saying “Give fish to a beggar and you may feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you will feed him for the rest of his life“.  We altered the saying a little:  “Give alms to a blind beggar and you may feed him for a day, teach him how to massage and you will feed him for the rest of his life. “

People with healthy eyes can get trained quite well in the basics of Ah Shi massage in about three weeks.  You can have a larger number of people in training at the same time – you are telling them and showing them.  They can watch videos with some fantastic lectures and demonstrating various moves and techniques.  There are several massage schools in developed countries specializing in short, “hands-on” courses.  They charge about $900 for a weekend course, about $1,800 for 5-day course, $2,700 for two weeks course, and $5,000 for 5 weeks course.  Our founder charges nothing for training the blind – he insists that he does it purely out of gratitude for the many blessing he received in his life.  One could say that he is giving each of his students a gift of about AU$3,500 in training.

Victor teaching Yusuf how to massage by being behind Yusuf and directing his hands

Victor teaching Yusuf how to massage

When teaching the blind, the best size of the class is up to six students and we can train them all the necessary skill in about 150 hours.  In a weekend course you may learn how to massage the feet, or hands, or face.  In one week you learn the absolute basics of a relaxing massage.  You need several weeks to learn enough to become efficient in the basics of remedial massage.  You need at least 600 hours of practice to become a skillful masseur.  To become masterful of most skills, you need about 5000 hours of practice.

There’s an urban myth that David Ogilvy, (often called The Father of Advertising) on his daily walk to work in New York City used to pass a blind beggar on a street corner. His sign read, “I’M BLIND. PLEASE HELP.” Every day, the beggar was largely ignored by the passers-by. One sunny morning Ogilvy stops, takes out a marker pen, scribbles a new sign on the back of the cardboard and moves on. From that day, the blind man’s cup is stuffed with notes and overflowing with change.  Ogilvy’s sign read “IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY, BUT I CAN’T SEE IT”

It’s a lovely story and it has been making copywriters feel good about themselves ever since. It’s usually quoted in the context of how important the ‘emotive sell’ is when pushing the latest commercial message into the minds of unwitting consumers, which is what copywriters generally do when they’re not being selfless superheroes.

The myth may help beggars to get more alms by changing their sign, but we want to change them from the “unemployable” blind beggars to respectable professionals with a handicap.

In one survey blindness was the worst handicap that participants could imagine happening to them.  Most of those afflicted learn how to live with the handicap and make the most of life they can with what they got. Ray Charles accepted his blindness and led a meaningful life. In fact, he liked to say that he could “see” better than 99 percent of the people who aren’t blind.

In the developed countries the society looks after the visually impaired so well that only about 25% of them feel the need to keep themselves employed.  In poor countries the blind are the most disadvantaged of all handicapped people.  Just about all of them are supported by their families, because really, they are unemployable.   For most of them the only source of income is begging.  In Timbuktu the blind beggars earn $1 – $1.50 a day.  The World Bank defines “extreme poverty” as living on less than $2/day.

Most of them may not be aware that their biggest natural “gift” is their heightened sense of touch.  Even if they are aware, they don’t know how to make use of this “gift”.  In Africa, massage is not a part of everyday life, as it is in South-East Asia.  Anybody in Mali wanting to learn massage must travel abroad – there are massage schools in South Africa, Gambia and Morocco, but not in Mali.  Most of the clients are the “elite” and the tourists.  Tourism is the life-blood of Timbuktu’s economy.  Even if the tourist season lasts only about four months, a blind masseur could earn enough money to support himself the rest of the year.

At the completion of the course our students will not be massage therapists – for that they would need to go to a special school for the blind that has a curriculum structured especially for the visually impaired.  There are schools like that in America, Europe and Asia, but not in Africa.  They have special teaching tools to teach them the anatomy and physiology, and those tools are very expensive.  In Israel it takes about two years of full time study for a visually impaired person to be a massage therapist.  In Thailand it takes three to four months for any average trainee, blind or sighted, to be trained in Thai massage service.

Officially, we teach them how to give a relaxing massage, but in reality the skills gained during our training will allow them to help almost everyone with soft tissue problems.  It is a challenging task, but the end result is worth the extra effort.  And they learn well.  One way to tell if your masseur is good is to observe how relaxed you will feel during the massage.  If you feel drowsy, he is good.  If you fall asleep during the massage, he is excellent.

Training the blind in Timbuktu was quite challenging on several fronts – Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world and it is reflected by education.  The youth literacy in large towns is about 56%, in rural areas about 19%.  French is the official language alongside with several local languages.  So, the 19% of literate people in Timbuktu will have some degree of knowledge of French, but only a small percentage of them will be able to communicate in English.  In Timbuktu the local Touaregs speak only Tamasheq; I don’t speak French, nor Tamasheq, but “If there is a will, there is a way”.  I hired Victor – a Nigerian masseur whom I met in Bamako.  Victor was translating from my English into French and Aminata (secretary of the local Association) was translating from French into Tamasheq.  Though, language was not the worst problem.  It takes longer, or you have to work harder to teach the blind – you can’t show them videos or illustrated books to teach them anatomy or massage techniques. You have to do it one on one – take their hand and guide them; take their index finger and place it on the spot that is going to be massaged, then all the moves have to be described one by one and with each of the trainees. (You can tell a student with normal sight that a muscle fibre looks like an earth-worm, but how do you describe an earth-worm to anybody in a place like Timbuktu – there are no earth-worms in Sahara.) The blind have one huge advantage over seeing people – their incredible tactile sensitivity. Most of them also pick up the knowledge very quickly and they are so eager to learn.  They are aware that a chance like this may land in their lap only once in their lifetime.

We started training the first group one day after the end of Ramadan – the 1st of September 2011.  The graduation was on the 21 September – one day before Mali’s Independence Day.  We gave them about150 hours of very intensive hands-on training.  In the TV interview Vlado said how impressed he was at their progress, taking into account their handicap and language barrier.  They really put their heart and soul into learning what we wanted to teach them.  During the last few days of the course every one of our students was so efficient in giving a relaxing massage that the massaged persons did feel very drowsy or they fell asleep.  During the graduation ceremony one of the local dignitaries mentioned that he was not aware of existence of this kind of project for the visually impaired in the whole of Africa and expressed his thanks to our founder for selecting Timbuktu to be the birthplace of a program that will help many of the most disadvantaged individuals on the continent.