A blonde, a Swede and a partially blind Ugandan attempt to make a chair…. it sounds like the start of a bad joke doesn’t it?
Well, this is reality. I’ve commissioned a Swedish volunteer to help me make some adaptive seating for a disabled boy in the village and we have roped in the skills of a local carpenter who has lost the sight in one eye and has provided some rather questionable chairs to the lodge we reside in. His name in Mandev, which isn’t actually his name at all, more a nickname which abbreviated in Ugandan, means man with a beard. He is in his 70’s, has a 20 year old wife and lots of children that attend our school.
The initial idea was to make some supportive seating for a boy without sitting balance which may help reduce his tone and give him some comfort. My initial sketches, although not great, were quickly adapted by Jan our Swedish volunteer into something completely different but looked like it may work. Given that Sweden has a reputation for high class products and of course is home to the infamous IKEA, which if anything shows how well the Swedish can put together furniture, I decided to run with it.
Many people in Uganda still resort to witch doctors and are under the impression that if they have a disabled child then they have been cursed in some way. This young boy was identified to me by a neighbour and his parents were more than happy for me to meet him. Unable to sit independently or talk, he has the most beautiful smile and I instantly wanted to try and help in some way. At 16, it is unlikely rehabilitation will make any huge differences, especially if no-one is able to carry on my work after I leave.
The best solution therefore was to make him a form of adaptive seating to help reduce his tone, improve his strength and hopefully improve his quality of life.
The question was how to do this. Jan decided that Mandev was the best option and we handed over his above plans… inevitably what we got given was nothing like it.
Needing to then adapt the plans I had a little help from Jessie, another physiotherapist I had made contact with who works at a disabled school. We began to change the design to ensure that at the very least, he had some more flexion at the hips to stop him from sliding out and falling onto the floor.
The other very obvious problem was that the chair was wonky (a common theme with Mandev’s chairs!). Hardly surprising, considering he measures the legs from a different point each time and his tape measure is so old that it no longer has numbers on…
In addition to the chair, I also asked him to make a table which we could fit on top as the boy has enough upper limb activity to feed himself.
Five attempts later, with some measuring help from another Swedish volunteer, Jutta, we finally had something that was beginning to look like it might actually work. Lucky, as I’m not sure Mandev would have been able to handle it if I’d have sent him back again to make more changes.
On the way back from town I bought a mattress to provide the additional support the chair still lacked. Coming back from town, sitting three on a motorbike, holding a pair of crutches and a mattress I realised how much I have become absorbed in Ugandan life. It also cemented the fact that I have very little regard for health and safety.
The chair looked great, such a good effort and I began cutting up the mattress to provide the chair with more postural support. That is, after a photo of the carpenter with his goods of course. Also, it turns out Mandev’s real name is Nathan… suits him far better I think!
As the mattress was thick and I only had a small, plastic pair of scissors I had to resort to a knife to cut it up. Although not ideal, I appeared to do a fairly good job.
After some battling to get everything back together we finally had a chair that might actually do the job. I was buzzing!
Tried and tested by our very own Pats…
The next problem was how to get it up the hill. On a good day, without carrying a huge wooden chair, it takes about 30/ 40 minutes to reach their house. After trying my sweetest persuasion techniques, I couldn’t entice anyone to carry it up for me, except for one of the cowboys who then got called away milking.
So, what else to do in Uganda other than call a boba boda? I have seen everything from goats to bananas to coffins on motorbikes so I was pretty confident they would be able to help me with my chair. Laurence called in some friends and within 10 minutes my chair was being loaded onto one of two motorbikes – the other to take us up the hill.
Bumping up small dirt tracks and through banana plantations, on a motorbike, is an unbeatable feeling. We passed the local villagers attending a service outside the church and I smiled and waved at some of my patients and the people I have come to know over the last two months. It is such a wonderful community and I have loved being a part of it.
When we arrived, the boy, P, was on the floor outside and smiled at the sight of us (his dogs were slightly less friendly and did their best to inflict fear). On previous visits he has generally been outside but when I have turned up unexpected he has been lying on the floor, in a small hut and I believe this is where he usually stays.
We lifted P up into our arms (for anyone bothered about manual handling – TIA) and carried him to the chair. It was instant gratification for the last few days stresses and exertions. He looked perfect. Yes, the chair was probably only just adequate but he looked so much better and it was definitely worth the effort.
His mother, who had seen us passing, had ran up the hill from the evening church service to meet us. Her kind words and blessings making it all the sweeter.
I haven’t yet mentioned by this was actually my last evening at the lodge and it could not have been better. Leaving behind something so small, that will make such a huge difference, there is no better way to end a trip!
The only issues were that I burnt myself on the motorbike exhaust (basic error – and one I have avoided for years!), giving myself a second degree burn. Fail!
I also definitely paid too much for the boda (to add insult to injury) and he wasn’t dropping his price, so I had next to no money for food or water for the next 30 hours until my flight! But, it was worth it all for the sense of accomplishment.
Thanks to all the amazing people that helped make this a reality.