Phil Tunstall, chief of operations at Legs4Africa and all round good egg, describes his recent experience of working at the wheelchair centre in the Gambia. He takes a look at the highs and the lows of the work that the centre does and the frustrations its technicians are forced to endure due to insufficient resources. Finally, he explains how you can help get hundreds of Gambians mobile again. Phil, over to you…
A small team of us arrived in The Gambia in early December. Swapping the cold brisk air and fallen leaves of England for the warm climate of ‘The smiling coast of Africa’. My role was to spend some time in the wheelchair department in the capital’s hospital and to find out what they needed, so they could help more people.
It was a relief to walk into the shade of the centre on the first morning. The piercing African sun had been burning the newly exposed recede in my hairline as we drove the open-top jeep into Banjul. The rickety ceiling fan creaked softly as it cooled my reddening head. I looked around the wheelchair workshop, old tools, random metal poles and bare tyres were neatly organised on the brimming shelves.
Two technicians greeted me warmly with smiles and turned back to their work. One was slowly spinning a wheel around, it was placed on his bench. He observed the gentle bounce of its buckle and meticulously re-aligned it with a tiny spanner. The other was sat on the floor in the corner, his own wheelchair next to him, he was welding two metal tubes together skilfully. The electronic crackle, bright sparks and smell of hot metal made me excited about the week to come.
The three engineers, Momodou, Ibrahim and C-Boy are all wheelchair users themselves. They are immensely skilled and are delight to work with, always upbeat and I got the feeling that their job means the world to them. I noticed their enjoyment in tinkering around with tools and metal, and how they love helping people out with their skills.
Someone would casually roll into the workshop, they would always know them by name, laughing and joking with them like an old friend. They would explain a problem with their chair and the technicians would diligently fix it, by tweaking this or that. Ibrahim artfully fixed a chair with a wobbling frame, welding a scrap metal bar across its base.
I noticed how old the chairs were, the bald tyres and the decaying fabric seats. Yet the immense ability of the engineers kept the wheelchairs on the road by using parts of bicycles, old steel gates, and materials that would have been long since thrown away in the UK.
I was there to assess the centre’s needs and didn’t know what to expect and realised quickly that their needs are not to do with staffing or skillset. I told Momodou how amazing it was that they managed to keep all these wheelchairs working. He looked into my eyes sadly.
‘’It can be frustrating, a chair can go away and then come back next week with the same problem, we replace old tyres with old tyres, we work hard and don’t move forwards’’.
I tried to stay up-beat and told him how he was doing a great service for his people. Momodou half-smiled then released a somber, heavy sigh.
“There are so many people to help. We’ve got well over a hundred people on a waiting list and when we do get equipment we have to choose who has it and who goes without it.”
‘’Where do the wheelchairs come from at the moment’’ I asked
“People leave them to us when they die”
My heart sank. The realisation crept over me that having access to a chair can be the difference between having a sociable, enjoyable and fulfilling life. As opposed to the depressing loss of freedom if stuck at home, reliant on others to bring you food or carry you to the toilet.
Luckily, we have the means to make this situation so much better. I’ve spent the last few months driving around the UK collecting as much second-hand mobility equipment as I can. Hospitals, care-homes and manufacturers have kindly donated van loads mobility equipment. We have decent wheelchairs, crutches and walking frames in storage that would otherwise be destined for the scrapheap.
We’ve got enough to fill a shipping container and we’re ready to go. Over 200 good wheelchairs will give freedom and life to over 200 people. The tools and new parts we wish to buy will keep these wheelchairs on the road for years to come.
You can support Momodou, C-boy and Ibrahim in giving freedom and mobility to hundreds of people. We are trying to raise £6000 by crowdfunding. Enough to ship the equipment we have already collected, and buy the tools and materials that the centre needs.
We have begun this crowdfunding campaign and the video was filmed with a 360o camera. Meaning you can watch it on your smartphone and move it around to see the workshop from every angle!