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Without freedom to touch, blind migrants disoriented in virus-hit South Africa

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Sheets of braille were scattered around Jetro Gonese as he sat hunched over his mattress in a dilapidated building in downtown Johannesburg, punching away at the keys of his special typewriter.

Sightless since childhood, 60-year-old Gonese, a Zimbabwean immigrant in South Africa, has been confined to the tiny room he shares with another visually-impaired man since the start of an anti-coronavirus lockdown in March.

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In a new world where people must keep their distance and avoid contact with surfaces, the blind have found themselves deprived of their compass.

“Touch is what we call the queen sense,” Gonese explained.

“It enables us to recognize and identify most things… the texture of surfaces, your skin or your hand. It is very central in our lives.”

None of the building’s 200-odd residents can afford sanitizer or face masks. Most are the families of disabled immigrants like Gonese, who scrape a living by begging on the streets.

Strict confinement measures and vulnerability to the virus have forced these sightless breadwinners to remain indoors.

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“It is dangerous for us to shake hands or touch any surfaces because you might contract the disease,” Gonese said, adding that police enforcing lockdown rules had chased him home the few times he ventured outdoors.

“So communication has been very difficult for us… because we are afraid to touch things.”

– No ‘voice tune’ –

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Further along the dark graffiti-filled corridor, Enok Mukanhairi occupies a cramped two-bedroom flat with his wife Angeline Tazira, 50, and four grown children.

The couple met at a school for the visually impaired in the southeastern Zimbabwean city of Masvingo and migrated to South Africa in 2007 — driven away from their home country by economic collapse blamed on ex-president Robert Mugabe.

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Mukanhairi, 57, went back to his usual begging spot last week, encouraged by a gradual easing of lockdown restrictions since the start of May.

He struggled to find his bearings around people who spoke through face masks and kept a distance.

“If you are putting a mask at times we cannot hear your voice properly,” Mukanhairi said.

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“Some of them cannot even release the voice tune which we are used to,” he added. “So it affects how quickly I can identify (a person).”

Mukanhairi said fewer drivers rolled down their car windows as he stood by the traffic light.

Those that extended a coin did so hastily, without exchanging a word.

“I am very worried about catching coronavirus, but not as much as getting food.”

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Tazira nodded as she stared up at the ceiling, knitting a white scarf without missing a single stitch.

She has not yet dared to resume her own begging.

“Before it was easier,” Tazira said in Zimbabwe’s Shona language.

– ‘Not like anyone’ –

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Another Zimbabwean immigrant, Siwachi Mavhaire, who is a volunteer for the African Diaspora Forum — a local charity, has grown close to the blind community.

“They are not like anyone,” Mavhaire noted. “Myself, even if they lock me down, I can go out and run away and come back.”

“They are the ones who observe it (lockdown) more than anybody,” he added. “They are scared.”

Gonese has used the long days indoors to type out memories from the past on his Braille writer.

Despite losing his sight to measles at the age of two, he completed his education and trained as a teacher for visually-impaired children.

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None of those qualifications were recognized in South Africa, forcing him into 12 long years of street begging.

“I thought I would come up with a short story of my life,” he told AFP, as a slight breeze drifted into the stuffy room and rustled the papers on his mattress.

sch/sn/ri


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