How we started

For Timbuktu it was quite sudden, but Vlado Viglasky, the founder, worked a few years on the idea of establishing massage training centres for the visually impaired in third world countries – that was one of the top items on his “bucket list”.   In May 2011 he came here to tick off the top item on the list (visiting Timbuktu) and to do some research about the feasibility of establishing a training centre.   His findings were positive and he returned to Timbuktu with Victor at the end of August.  The centre opened for business on the 22nd of September 2011 – the country’s Independence Day.

Vlado’s speech.

During the first graduation ceremony (21/09/2011) he gave the following description of what brought him to Timbuktu:

Visiting Timbuktu was my dream since the age of ten, when I started reading books about early explorers of Africa.  That dream came true late in May this year.  After reaching my hotel I asked about getting a massage and I was told to get a cold shower, because there is no masseur in the town

Next day my tourist guide told me that there is just one physiotherapist in the whole town, employed by the local hospital.  Anybody wishing to have a massage has to make an appointment with him and then go to the hospital for a massage during business hours.

You see, I am a retired masseur and I thought – there must be room for more masseurs in this town.  And that brought to surface a more recent dream.  Even before retiring I was planning to train visually impaired people in the third world countries in this kind of massage.   Then I felt that I need to reward Timbuktu for providing me with so many dreams when I was a child. I made some inquiries, met some blind people and decided that as soon as I can I’ll come back and organize a massage course for a few of the local visually impaired people

But first let me tell you how I became a masseur:  In 2002 my right shoulder was so painful I couldn’t reach for my wallet or for a seat belt in my car. I was applying for an invalid pension when a Chinese masseur, who learnt massage from his blind grandfather, massaged it a few times and he fixed it. For the next few years I was bugging him about teaching me his skills, which he did in 2005.  Almost one year later I traveled to Philippines, where I saw lots of blind beggars. They looked like the most wretched creatures under the sun. I always gave them alms, but after one traffic incident with a blind beggar at a busy street at Manila City Hall, I thought of starting training centres for blind people in the third world countries. After getting their training they can get jobs in hospitals, with sports people, in hotels and holidays resorts, or they can form a co-operative, which would run massage clinics in shopping malls. A person with normal vision would manage the clinic – talking to customers, accepting the payments, housekeeping, bookkeeping, etc.  It works really well in Philippines. I’ve seen a few such shops in shopping malls and I spoke to the blind people. They were earning about $10/day or more – the same money like carpenters, or almost double of what a checkout girl earns in a supermarket. I had one blind masseur to come to my hotel and he gave me a one-hour massage. The charge was $15. That was a standard charge for massages in hotel rooms. It is not an easy job, but what struck me most was their mannerism – they were behaving like any one of us with normal vision in satisfying and well paying jobs. When I compared them to the blind beggars in streets, or bus/train stations in practically all the 3rd world countries that I visited, the contrast was quite stunning.

When the dream of training the visually impaired formed in my head in 2006, I was not sure about my talent for teaching massage.  So in May 2009 I took a holiday in Bali, in Indonesia to do a trial run.  On the day of my arrival I visited a school for the visually impaired and offered to teach some of their students how to do Ah Shi massage. After a demonstration they accepted my offer and the next day there were five students waiting for me.

Vlado instructing Halima how to massage

Vlado instructing Halima how to massage

I never had anything to do with the visually impaired before, so the beginnings were quite challenging, but those difficulties didn’t discourage me.  I could see in their faces and in their body language an overwhelming desire to learn, whatever I was teaching them.  It was immensely inspirational to me.

My hotel was only a short distance from the famous Kuta beach.  Every morning before breakfast I would go for a swim.  Perhaps on the third morning after I started the course, as I was there on the beach and observing the beautiful scenery, a realization hit me: in a couple of hours I will be with my students and not one of them will ever see any of this beauty. 

Until then I always thought of myself as a rather poor man with not much luck in life.  But that morning on the beach in Bali it suddenly dawned on me just how fortunate my life was, I realized that I was blessed with much more than I probably deserve.  That realization awoke such overwhelming feeling of gratitude in my heart, that tears just started running down my cheeks and I kept saying:  “Thank you God, thank you, thank you”. On that morning my attitude to life changed completely. 

There were a few problems teaching the blind but they didn’t dampen my enthusiasm.  Every time I open my eyes, I am reminded that my students can’t see any of the things that I can enjoy looking at – all the beautiful landscapes, the plants, animals, all the incredible works of art, the movies, all the books that I have read, etc.  What a gift do I have from God?!

The times that I spent teaching the blind were the most healing times for my soul.  We all had some painful experiences that we consider were unfair and we were asking God “Why?”  Some of the memories will hurt until the day we die.  Some of my memories were painful. but they are now healed.  I have a feeling that there will be very little that I will complain about for the rest of my life.  I just keep counting my blessings.  

The trial run at teaching Ah Shi massage in Bali was very successful.  I repeated it five months later in Philippines, but on a smaller scale 

After the trials in Bali, Philippines and my first visit to Timbuktu I knew that I would be able to handle the project.  I returned with Victor on the 28th of August, we rented house on 29th, and we visited one family on 30th of August.  They helped to organize for the next day a meeting of the local branch of the association for the visually impaired.    There I saw one blind boy about 10 years old. When I saw him, I was as close to tears as one can get.  I thought to myself – when I was his age, I was reading about Timbuktu and looking at pictures of the town in National Geographic, and dreaming that one day I will visit the place.  This boy will never be able to have the dreams that I had.  Nor will any of the visually impaired there.

The association selected several of their members believing they would be the most suitable for the course.  We started the day after the end of Ramadan – the 1st of September. One elderly blind gentleman told me that arriving in Timbuktu during the holy month of Ramadan was a good omen and he feels that my project will have Allah’s blessing. Three weeks have passed and what a huge change in the lives of these young people.  I read in one book that most visually impaired feel that they are a burden on the family and the society because their disability prevents them from getting a decent job and earning decent money.

I could feel that my students realized that God gave them a once in a lifetime chance to capitalize on one talent they had – their superior tactile sensitivity.  And they grabbed this opportunity with both arms and wouldn’t let go.  They worked hard and never complained about anything, except perhaps about the food, but I wasn’t the cook.  All the knowledge they were able to soak up was amazing.  Starting from feet and ending at the top of the head, both sides of the body, there is such a long sequence of massage steps, moves and techniques that it is a challenge for anyone even with good eyes to remember all of them

Yet they do remember and they give an excellent massage.  I am immensely proud of them – they are the real heroes here.  I am just God’s tool.  I wish to thank them for being such good students.  I expect there will be many positive comments about their skills on traveller’s blogs on Internet.  And I like the timing of the end of the course. This course helped them to a high degree of independence, which will start tomorrow – your nation’s Independence Day.

Little by little I found out that there were many people behind the scenes doing their best to help us with my project.  I know some of them and I want to thank them all wholeheartedly.

Then there are two men that are in a special category.  One of them is your own resident – Alhassan – the town’s only physiotherapist masseur.  When we were introduced I thought: he will be our worst enemy – he will try to drive us into the ground, because we will be taking his customers.  How wrong I was!  Now I see him as our greatest ally and a guardian angel.  He worked so hard to overcome all the obstacles that came our way.   I can’t thank him enough.  Your town must be very proud to have a citizen like him among you.

My biggest thanks go to Victor.  Though he is a Nigerian, he is very familiar with the local customs and the way things are done here.  He was able to shield me from so many scammers; cheats and opportunists who were trying so hard to fleece me of everything they possibly could.  Without him I would be much poorer now and quite likely so discouraged that I would have given up long before the completion of the project.  There were times when some of the bad characters were successful in their efforts and I was quite discouraged, but he did his best to disperse the clouds of the doubts and to see the end result – a better and more respectable life for a few of your most disadvantaged citizens.  And he was so right.  This project cost me many thousands of dollars.  But I feel it is a little price to pay for all the pleasures I experienced because of my healthy eyes

Today is one of the happiest days of my life.  I completed a task that I felt will show my gratitude for all the blessings I received in my life.  To be thanked for my efforts by the town of Timbuktu in this kind of graduation ceremony completely overwhelms me.  If somebody told me three weeks ago that the town will do something like this for me, I would respond in much the same way any of you would have responded to somebody saying five years ago that Obama will be the next president of USA.

Thank you all and I feel quite confident that I will come back sometime in future.

The graduation ceremony at the Town Hall was filmed by the local TV and a segment about our project was shown three times on National TV.  Local radio stations recorded all the speeches and excerpts were aired during the next few days.

Here is a video of the graduation ceremony: