Bodywork Across Barriers
by Laura Novak
The healing power of touch is undeniable to bodyworkers and those who receive bodywork. I have focused my bodywork practice around pain relief for the last 13 years, seeking out and soaking in any new knowledge that may help me to be a more effective at helping clients recover from and live reduce their pain. Throughout this time I have made attempts in different ways to reach people who do not have access about or knowledge of the benefits of bodywork. I truly believe that bodywork and compassionate touch has the ability to work with the medical model to reduce the huge amount of pain in our country and across the globe. My dream since the beginning has been to help communities of women gain access to healthy compassionate touch and pain relief regardless of their economic ability to pay. When pain strikes impoverished women it can lead to their inability to work and therefore contribute to the loss of income, shelter, and stability. Massage therapy is an effective option to reduce pain for little cost and is a treatment that can be easily taught to clients, empowering them through self-care and self-awareness to help themselves heal.
In February 2020, my dream became a reality during a humanitarian trip to Tanzania. The goal of the trip was simply to meet, spend time with, and learn from the women in a small rural community surrounding Lake Eyasi, Tanzania. I had put on hold the idea of getting to do bodywork on a humanitarian trip and become grateful with the opportunity to be with and learn from these amazing women.
One girl’s dream has saved countless lives…
Lake Eyasi village has been developed over the last 10 years by a local woman named Lightness. At 10 years old her father left her family, causing incredible struggles for her mother. At that moment Lightness vowed to return to these abandoned women as an adult and help them find better ways to cope and even flourish. Many years later, after being married and having three children of her own, her childhood dreams became a reality. The progress she has made has completely changed the lives of countless women and their children. The Lake Eyasi women’s community is comprised of women who have been abandoned by men after having their children. The projects Lightness has completed include putting in a well, building safe homes for women, building shops to help provide income and empower the women, build and run a vocational school for young women, building and operating a private medical clinic that does not turn away patients due to money, and much more. Her open mind, willingness to ask people what they need, and determination to never give up is truly inspirational.
I traveled to Lake Eyasi with a non-profit from New York named Journey of Solutions (JOS), and planned to spend two weeks helping to paint homes, plant trees, help in the medical clinic, and listen to all that these women were willing to share about their lives and culture. When I arrived I was so excited to learn that Lightness had asked the women if they were interested in learning and receiving massage and they accepted. Lightness planned time for me to work with the women offering and teaching massage therapy.
Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone…
Those were the words that I later learned my group said as I was ushered away with a nervous look on my face, uncertain of what was next. Regina, a woman who JOS built a home last year and was kind enough to lend her bedroom for the massage sessions. About 15 women followed me into the living room and Lightness translated and explained to the women what massage is and why I was there. They looked puzzled and slightly hesitant, but curious… I simply waited with an open heart and a smile on my face. One by one they went around the room opening up and explaining their physical pain and their medical problems. I was fascinated by the instant connection amongst us and how much needed no translation as they pointed and held the body parts that hurt. I was attempting to be present and keep track as the list of ailments grew and each woman spoke. Their hearts were open and they trusted us and each other to know what ailed them. I wondered, perhaps no one had ever asked about their physical pain and many had never received formal medical care. They had physical pain from carrying 5-gallon buckets of water for miles on their heads, bearing many children, working on the ground all day, sleeping on the ground, walking miles and miles daily, and much more. They also expressed the pain they have in their hearts and chests, many of whom began to experience this after their husbands left. The women shared their stories, their pain, and their medical problems in a beautiful way and with hope in their voices that perhaps Lightness and I could help. From the group intake I knew I could offer bodywork to all but one woman - who appeared to have blood clots and a possible blood infection. There were a lot of secondary conditions that we were able to guide them to visit the medical clinic for and other basic medical ailments that they simply didn’t understand and could be easily helped with lifestyle practices we explained. Next we slipped into the “treatment room.”
It was only 10am, but already at least 80 degrees in the small room. There was limited cement floor space and a twin size bed with a fleece blanket. The women let me enter first, and then they all filed in after, sitting on the cement floor around the bed, watching eagerly. One of the elders, Maria, decided to go first, she had knee pain and back pain. She had the most beautiful smile, gentle touch, and proudly shared that had birthed 16 children and was 70 years old. The women giggled as my eyes opened widely and my jaw dropped at the number of children she had. This all seemed as incomprehensible to me as bodywork seemed to them. Maria expressed that life was challenging because her knees were stiff and painful when she attempted to squat (to use the bathroom). I began gently massaging her legs and knees. I proceeded with caution, as I could tell that the gentle and compassionate touch was a new concept to them. Women there did not practice touch in this way, they held hands and hugged hello, but massage and body contact is simply not part of their culture. As I worked the women around us chatted and smiled, Maria laughed and expressed to the women how wonderful it felt. Maria’s laugh and smile is imprinted in my mind still today as a moment of pure connection and joy.
After Maria one by one, each woman crawled onto the bed with me and we worked with their pain. Paulina, a young woman in her thirties watched me carefully and waited her turn. She and another young woman wanted to learn to perform massage. Lightness translated her story for me; Paulina had worked weaving grass mats to sell, but after her second c-section she had horrible pain and numbness in her right leg that made it impossible to work. Her husband left, and she lived alone in a small mud house with her 2 small children. I explained that the pain could be due to some compression of a nerve in her spine or abdomen, after only a few minutes of abdominal work she could feel her leg again and the pain was gone. Paulina was elated, grateful, and determined to learn. She then worked with me on all the other women. I would work one side of the body, Paulina watched, then she would repeat what she saw on the other side of the body. Lightness continued to translate, explaining what she was feeling for, and Paulina caught on very quickly. She could feel tense muscles and when they released, she could also feel when blood returned and a formerly quiet area had a new pulse. The massage sessions and teaching went on for 4-5 hours before we had to stop for the day. More and more women showed up as the word spread through the area, Lightness explained to the women we had to leave for the day but we could return the next day.
On day 2 when we arrived in the village the women were once again ready for massages. Paulina guided me back to the small house and we began. On this day the women came in even more open and trusting. Lightness was working with on another project and Paulina and I were left to communicate with our hands and our hearts. With no translator as the women arrived they explained their pain to Paulina in Swahili and pointed at their bodies to show me where they hurt. Paulina and I massaged them, once again, each working half. Many of the women from the first day also returned, telling us their original pain was gone, but they had more areas they wanted massage for. Maria expressed that her original aches and pains were so much better, but she had more and happily laid down to receive more bodywork. It was a huge success and the second day really helped build confidence in Paulina’s work and her skills. Women of all ages came, some brought their children and babies, and all were so open and willing to connect and receive touch.
As the week continued we had a clinic day at the small medical center that Lightness had opened. To my surprise and excitement, Lightness’s daughter Janet traveled across the country to join us. Janet was a physical therapy student finishing her studies. Her mother had called to tell her of the bodywork we were doing and Janet wanted to come to learn and to help.
Journey of Solutions brought in 3 extra doctors from the city, we had 2 local nurses, 2 lab technicians. As a team we saw over 80 patients in one day. On this day we worked in the lab, helping to draw blood, prick fingers, and run labs on the patients. It was an all hands on deck experience very different from anything we would see in America. Thirty of the patients were women from the village who we had talked to about coming to see the doctors. The women saw the doctors, got laboratory tests, and got medication to treat their conditions. Many of the women had digestive disorders, infections, Urinary Tract Infections, and 4 of the women were discovered to have uterine cancer. One of the women had back pain that medication was not helping. Physical therapy is a new profession in Tanzania, but since we were there the doctors thought that they would try and send this woman to Janet and I. The woman was young and could not stand up fully. I watched as the woman talked to Janet, and Janet diagnosed her pain. Janet then performed hands on decompression of the lower back. The woman, stood up with hesitation, and then as she stood tall a smile spread across her face. The pain she had been experiencing for weeks was instantly gone. Janet gave her some exercises and we sent her on her way. The doctor was surprised and pleased to hear the woman was now pain free without medication. I felt very grateful to have the opportunity to work in their medical clinic, to help with the patients and to learn more about how medicine works in Tanzania.
On our last day in the village I worked with the local physical therapist, Janet, and the women. A local woman brought her seven year-old daughter who had been suffering from horrible leg pain for two weeks. She could not straighten her knee due to pain in her low back, yet she had been walking more than five miles a day to school. She had developed a severely distorted posture from this. Together Janet and I worked to find the cause and solutions for the young girl. We discovered her initial pain came from a trigger point in her lumbar spine. The rest of the pain and posture pattern had been developed in response to that original compression in the low back. Janet and I taught her mother how to continue to massage the girl and provide traction for her spine. It was the perfect ending to this life changing experience. Being side-by-side, working together across languages, cultures, and professions. It was a picture I would love to be able to live in every day.
I returned home feeling inspired to reach more people here with massage. To help to provide access to compassionate and healing touch and bodywork for people everywhere, regardless of their culture or their economic situations. I am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity and I can’t wait to return again.
Gone but not forgotten…
Since returning home I have been wondering how to re-create this magic. How bodyworkers can connect and serve the impoverished people in our communities. This is where the concept of “Bodywork Across Borders” has been born from. An idea and dream to find ways for impoverished people in pain to access and afford bodywork as a possible way to help their pain and a turning point for their stories. By creating access and dialogue with people in pain we can build therapeutic relationships that can truly change their lives and our own.
How to continue…
This article and idea is intended to begin dialogue and ideas between bodyworkers, to bring together ideas and projects. I am certain others have experienced situations similar to mine and built projects within their communities. If you have a project or feel inspired to create or join need-based projects like this please reach out.
Massage and Wellness