Beth in Uganda Blog Series – Part 3: A Problem Shared Is A Problem Halved

Bethany / Uganda

Some of you may or may not know that way back in the early days Legs4Africa voluntary OG Meg saw that there was more than just the need to supply components to hospitals in Africa. What about the person who gets that leg? Okay, they have regained their independence, the potential to work, can more easily integrate in to their community to name just few of the benefits. The five of the elements of wellbeing that support good metal health are categorised as physical, social, community, financial and purpose and I would say that on the surface acquiring prosthesis bring a person much closer to achieving overall wellbeing.  But is it really so straightforward?

Softly spoken twenty-four year old Nuhu Semakula was amputated in June this year after being involved in a road traffic. Nuhu has the support of his wife and family but attended the support group at Mulago to hear stories from other amputees

Mental health awareness in the UK has seen vast improvements over the years and although nothing is perfect I think we can agree that at the very least there is a much better understand of it. As with anything, the better understood a health condition is the more tolerance it receives. Mental health in all it’s forms; good, poor, severe, well-managed, medicated… Whatever it may be is a very complicated part of the human condition. Some scientists even argue that the human brain is the most complex organism in the universe.  In countries such as Uganda where the very basic of provisions can be unobtainable for many you can easily see how something that often has no physical presentations might not receive due care and attention. Definitely no blame game here but that doesn’t mean people aren’t grappling with poor mental health. Time and time again the folks we speak to with limb loss talk about the related traumas associated and how it add further to the existing pressures that come with living in places such as Uganda. These people are at serious risk of developing severe and enduring mental health conditions.

Legs4Africa have been working on supplying sub-Saharan hospitals with recycled components since 2014 but we have grown in to feeling a sense of responsibility to look at our beneficiaries holistically rather than solely as recipients of a prosthetic leg. Working closely with hospital staff, amputees and ministries it became increasingly more apparently that the capacity was lacking in mental health support for amputees. Now, we don’t believe that replacing existing services is good for anyone and we respect the responsibilities of in-country governments but what we can do is look at ways to equip amputees with the knowledge to better support themselves and one another to bridge the gap between physical and emotional rehabilitation provisions.

Vincent Ruhweza, a below the knee amputee, initiated a small pig rearing social enterprise in Fort Portal (Western Uganda) with the financial support of Community Based Organisation Mpora Rural Family. It was the group Vincent has brought together that we met with in Western Uganda
Vincent and the group he is rearing piglets with to a generate income for those with shares in the project

So, let’s briefly return to those early days I mentioned. Take yourself back, if you will, to 2014. We were still fresh on the scene in The Gambia, yet to partner with hospitals elsewhere in Africa and Meg suggested bringing amputees together to discuss anything and everything related to lower limb loss. And there you have it, our first amputee peer support group. Peer support is simply people with shared experiences offering each other support (Mind do a really great job of explaining peer support in more detail here https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/drugs-and-treatments/peer-support/#.Xbf4A0UzaRs) So? What’s the big deal? Why have you written a blog about it? Well, it gets people forging genuine relationships, reduces the reliance on service professionals and can empower the disenfranchised. Best of all though, it doesn’t require costly professional input so it is very easily accessible to those with little to no income.

Members attending one of the early meetings in The Gambia which ultimately lead to the officially recognised national association, the GAA

That first group has now expanded in to a registered association advocating for amputees across The Gambia but in its humble beginnings it provided a safe space for people who shared the experience of limb loss to relate to, advise and support one-another. Without such a group the Gambian Amputee Association (GAA) wouldn’t exist nor would the Gambian National Amputee Football Team and other associated activities that build further on the five elements of individual wellbeing.

Lawrence Kitimbo, President and Alex Mugerwa, Secretary of the Federation of Ugandan Amputee Football Association (bottom left in green) came to speak at the Mulago meeting about the benefits of continuing to be active after limb loss

So far I have seen the opportunity for amputees to gather and discuss issues specific to them being very well received. Let me tell you one thing: Ugandan’s love to spin a yarn! In fact, in the last six weeks Legs4Africa have facilitated four meetings, one in each in the central and western regions, following which a further two were held independently Kampala (central) by attendees of the first meeting. Two have taken place in the Eastern region where we collaborated with Integrated Disabled Womens Acitvities (IDIWA) in Iganga and local amputee Mourine Alinykira in Jinja to mobilise the attendees.

IDIWA meeting in Iganga
Mourine’s group in Jijna. Many of whom were upper limb amputees as Mourine herself (standing second in from the right) lost her arm in a road traffic accident

I can’t deny the enthusiasm here but there is definitely a way to go in terms of mental health awareness, which still carries a lot of stigma as well as the common perception that someone with a physical difference is less capable. But who better convince an amputee that they are still totally capable than a totally capable amputee?

Me with community mobiliser and Eastern Region Amputee Association chair person Mourine. Her association is not yet officially registered due to lack of funds but Mourine set to networking with amputees very soon after being amputated because her husband left her and her family no longer accepted her, as a result she decided to create a support network of others who were going through the same thing.

In my honest opinion – absolutely no-one.