After two and a half months solo travelling in South East Asia I was more than ready to go home. I’m not sure what it was that I didn’t enjoy but what I am sure of is that I was beginning to convince myself that I might be past enjoying travelling. This terrified me. I already had my trip to Uganda booked and now that I was going to be working something big was at stake if I had indeed turned in to a homebody. Fortunately once I caught a glimpse of Kigali as I landed for my transit stop in Rwanda all those worries melted away, the butterflies began and my heart was full again. This felt right. Phew!
I arrived in Entebbe, Uganda at 10am on Monday 16th of September feeling tired but contented, wondering where I was even going to start. The purpose of coming was to figure out if it’s viable to set up a community support project in Uganda. How. Very. Exciting! I had absolutely no idea what to expect… I still don’t!
Since the first delivery Legs4Africa delivery last year some of our leg-endary (waheeey! We love that pun!) volunteers have delivered suitcases of components to Mualgo National Referral Hospital in Kampala and a few other regional hospitals through our Deliver A Leg campaign on an ad-hoc basis. Then, after Henry Gazimba (technologist at Mulago National Referral Hospital, Kampala), Akram Semwanga (technologist at Katalemwa Cheshire Rehabilitation Centre for Children in Kampala), Tom Baguma (technologist at Fort Portal Regional Referral Hospital, Western Uganda) and Mark Kalibbala (Community Support Officer to spinal injury patients) stopped by HQ in May of this year we all decided it was time to get to know each other better.
It won’t surprise you to learn that Uganda is poor. Previously a British Protectorate it gained independence on October 9th 1962 has seen seen numerous internal conflicts. Expensive business as it is and costly in many ways in a place that arguably had little to no political or economical autonomy for so long.
When it comes to directing money towards an amputee who’s condition is no longer life-threatening or twenty patients with malaria – a ballpark estimate of the equivalent cost according to the workshop staff – helping twenty people naturally trumps helping just one. Wouldn’t you try to prevent a death too? Sadly this is what it boils down to. Resources are so limited that mortality is the overriding decision maker. Doctors don’t have the luxury of considering a patient’s quality of life they just have to consider their patient’s life. That’s how it goes here in Uganda and so amputees eventually fade in to the background and make their peace with the hardship that comes with limb loss in a place that finds it difficult to cater to their needs.
Since arriving in Uganda I have been in awe of the way the small network of dedicated, friendly and skilled prosthetic technologists go above and beyond their duty, working with endless integrity despite the many challenges they face. Not only are they making much of the assistive technologies from scratch (wheelchairs, crutches, corrective braces, wooden feet…) but they are also acting occupational therapists, support workers and confidantes to their patients.
Mulago Regional Referral Hospital is also home to the country’s only prosthetics and orthotics training school where tomorrow’s technologists learn the skills of the trade. Some will go on to work for private clinics, others may work for clinics supported by international sponsors or NGOs and some will continue the work in the regional referral hospitals around the country. But what is for sure is that they have chosen to dedicate themselves to helping others in more ways than perhaps they have yet come to realise.
Assistive technologies provided at government clinics are subsidised making them cheaper than in private clinics but materials often unavailable. For a prosthetic leg the socket can be fabricated in the workshop but knee joints and pylons can’t, nor can they be sourced in-country so the only way to get them is to import them. This brings the price of a prosthesis to sums that many Ugandans couldn’t even dream of affording. When you consider the fact that many patients struggle to cover the cost of transport to the hospital it shows just how useful the donation of used components can be. With all that being said Ugandans are resilient, generous and highly dedicated to their fellow country people and somehow, some of they time they just… figure it out.
It’s difficult not to be impressed really.