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Blind Masseur Helps Relieve Tension In War-Torn South Sudan


Japanese-style massage by blind South Sudanese - that was the painted wooden sign on our correspondent, Gregory Warner - that our correspondent, Gregory Warner, spotted in the South Sudanese capital of Juba. And he saw that side after a week of reporting on a civil war that still simmers there.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: It was my fifth day in South Sudan. I had taken cargo planes and helicopters to U.N. camps to talk with many people displaced by the last two years of conflict. And I needed a massage. I wasn't looking for Japanese-style massage by blind South Sudanese, but there was the sign, right by my hotel.



WARNER: How are you?


WARNER: Thank you for coming so quickly.

We're in a kind of small house in a dusty compound off the main road. Juba these days seems peaceful - people are walking to work. But the conflict has split the city in two. A few miles away, in a U.N. camp, tens of thousands of people prefer the safety of tents to the homes they fled two years before. Here, I'm the only customer. The receptionist leads me into a second room, warm and dim, and hands me some bright green pajamas.

WARNER: I put this on?


WARNER: So we do the interview first, or do we do the massage first? OK, we do the massage first. OK - OK, perfect.

My masseur is blind. And the Japanese style - that turns out to mean no oil. It's about pressure points. An hour later, I'm so relaxed that you'll hear the difference in my voice when I sit down to interview another masseur, named James.

JAMES PITIA: My name is James Pitia. I am a masseur, working with Seeing Hands massage.

WARNER: Seeing Hands massage.

PITIA: I became blind in 1997, when I was 13 years old.

WARNER: So the massage is 75 pounds. That's about $5. How much can that actually buy here in South Sudan?

PITIA: Seventy-five?


PITIA: Before, the 75 was OK. But now, the money we are getting here, most of them are going for transport.

WARNER: James's life as a masseur began in 2012. He was plucked from a teaching job at a blind school in Juba by a visiting priest from New York City who offered a training course in massage. James was selected with four other blind people - four men and one woman - to take the course. He'd never thought about massage before. But this was in the optimistic year after South Sudan's independence. The capital was flooded with business people and American advisers - all potential clients. What they hadn't counted on was that political rivalries within the new government were about to erupt.

PITIA: We graduated on 13 of December, 2013, and then on 14 of December, 2013, we started our business.

WARNER: And the 15th of December, the war started.

PITIA: The war started, yeah.

WARNER: So tell me about that.

PITIA: It was terrible because most of the people of our clients are foreigners, and they went out.

WARNER: And there was also gunfire in the streets.

PITIA: Yeah, it was so terrible for us.

WARNER: When the war moved outside of Juba,, they opened shop again, this time with a new clientele - humanitarian aid workers and priests who work with displaced people. James tells me he didn't have to watch the war - he could feel it in the bodies of his clients.

PITIA: They are filled with distress, tension, and everything is not going well because of the war. So after I give them massage, I say, this massage has at least relieved their tension and their stress.

WARNER: So a peace agreement has been signed. There may be a future of peace - we don't know. But based on what you're feeling in people's bodies, do you think that the tension is lifting? Do you think that there's peace coming?

PITIA: Yeah, it will take time. It will take time to relieve the tension.

WARNER: James, thank you.

PITIA: OK, you're welcome.

WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner, NPR News, Juba. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.