On a Saturday morning, Angeline Akai walks to work from her Kibera house to the Salus Oculi offices in Hurlingham, Nairobi. Angela is a shiatsu therapist.
Shiatsu is a unique, non-invasive therapy designed to stimulate the body’s inherent ability to heal itself. Angeline’s work involves the application of pressure on a client’s body using her fingers, thumbs and palms in a continuous rhythmic sequence. This stimulates a natural flow of energy through the body, calming the nervous system, improving circulation and relieving stiff muscles and easing stress. In Shiatsu therapy, no massage oil is applied, and the person remains fully clothed throughout the therapy session.
Angeline has been doing this job on a part-time basis for the last eight years. She is totally blind, and hers is a story of determination.
At the age of three, Angeline got a measles attack but unfortunately, lack of timely medical intervention threw her into the world of darkness. Angeline attended Kilimani Primary School, an integrated school which accommodates children with special needs. She attended the school courtesy of Sightsavers International.
Each day, Angeline had to trek to and from her Kibera home to school, something that was very difficult, more so when crossing the busy roads. Often, she would go hungry all day long owing to her parent’s inability to pay for her lunch. Many times, her family would do with only one meal a day. It was also the norm for the family to spend nights in the cold owing to her father’s inability to pay house rent.
Owing to these challenging circumstances, Angeline was lucky to get a place at Thika School for the Blind in class six, where she was able to comfortably pursue her studies.
“Life was much easier there, though each time I thought of my family and their tribulations back home, I would get very stressed.”
But in spite of these woes, Angeline managed impressive grades in her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE). Scoring 510 marks out of 700, she was admitted to Moi Girls’ School Nairobi, a school which also caters for those with special needs.
As her parents were once again unable to pay her fees, Angeline’s stay in school was erratic, as she relied on different well-wishers to settle her arrears. Despite this struggles, she sat for her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) in 2002 and attained a C plain.
“My dream career was in counseling and I looked forward to joining university. But I knew that was just wishful thinking because my parents couldn’t afford it and from experience, I knew that finding a sponsor was going to be difficult,” she remembers.
To keep herself busy, Angeline, together with other visually impaired people were trained in shiatsu therapy by the Japan International Cooperative Agency (JICA).
Luck smiled on her when in 2004, she got sponsorship to Highridge Teachers College where she later graduated with a P1 teaching certificate. The challenge, however, lay in securing employment.
“When I talked to my fellow graduates who were sighted, they told me they were also facing difficulties in being absorbed into the teaching industry. As a blind teacher, my chances were close to nil.”
To avoid becoming rusty in her teaching skills, Angeline volunteered at her former school – Kilimani Primary. She also continued working as a shiatsu therapist and used her income to support her parents and siblings. Among her three other siblings, Angeline is the only one who made it beyond class 7. In those days, before the introduction of free primary education, her parents could not afford the required school fees.
As she continued searching for a job, Angeline secured sponsorship for a certificate counseling course at Kenya Association of Professional Counsellors (KAPC) in 2006.
“Counseling has always been my passion. After taking the course, I confirmed that counseling is where my passion lay. I resolved to take a degree in counseling. Sadly, the sponsorship was only for a certificate. I hope to attain a degree in counseling someday.
In January 2009, I got a job as a rehabilitation assistant at Nairobi Comprehensive Eye Services. My work involved identifying recently blind people in different communities, counseling them, and training them on independent living skills. Many newly blind people live in denial about their visual inability, and many of them still harbor lots of anger and bitterness towards life. My counseling skills came in handy as I spoke to them, and encouraged them to accept their status and move on with their life. Blindness is not the worst thing that can happen in life.”
Unfortunately, the project Angeline was affected by dwindling donor funds due to the economic crunch, forcing it to downsize. Angeline was retrenched just a few months into the job she had come to love.
Martin Kieti, Executive Officer of Kenya Union of the Blind (KUB) says that among the greatest challenges for people with the disability is securing employment.
“It is very difficult for blind persons to find employment in Kenya unless they have qualifications that are above average. Most blind persons train as teachers, with the profession accounting for more than 90% of blind persons who proceed to tertiary institutions
Unfortunately, since the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) stopped the direct employment of teachers from college and introduced the interview system at District Education Boards (DEBs) and Boards of Governors (BOGs), many blind teachers are today going unemployed,” says Kieti.
As she continues to search for a job, Angeline today survives on her earnings from shiatsu therapy. On average, she makes 7,000 shillings a month. Her income is spent on among other needs, rent for her one-room house in Kibera which she shares with her sister – a single mother. She also supports her father, now a widower.
Angeline and other visually impaired people who practice Shiatsu therapy are hosted by Salus Oculi Kenya, an organization which empowers the visually impaired.