Medical care with auxiliary means is not sufficiently regulated in every country in the world. The social system in Senegal for instance does not cover the cost for this. People with disabilities therefore need to pay for their own required resources. But what happens if that is not possible?
Two young men by the names of Pablo Charlemoine and Estevan Toubape asked this very question in 2003. Due to muscular atrophy, Toubape uses a wheelchair in everyday life. During a trip to Senegal, Charlemoine saw with his own eyes how huge the demand for medical equipment in this country really is. Armed with this new experience and many contacts, he returned to Germany and cofounded the Wheelchairs for Africa (German: Rollis für Afrika) association together with Toubape.
Wheelchairs are going on a trip
The idea: wheelchairs and walkers that are no longer being used in Germany, but are still working properly are collected and shipped to Africa. This way, it makes it possible to supply disabled people with at least a certain amount of basic medical equipment.
"We are primarily getting these through contacts from medical supply stores or through private donations," explains Elias Nies of Rollis für Afrika. All of the collected walkers and wheelchairs are first stored temporarily in one of three warehouses in Wuppertal, Heidelberg and Berlin. From there, all supports are brought to the center in Heidelberg. Many dedicated people are meeting up there to repair the devices if needed before they are loaded into a large shipping container once a year and then send to Senegal. The journey from Germany to Africa takes approximately three weeks.
Once there, the resources are not just distributed on a whim. Before the items are distributed, it is being verified on location as to who needs what types of support. With the help of a database, helpers on site are recording the exact need of individuals, so that ultimately everyone gets the proper devices.
Currently a delivery with approximately 300 resource devices is shipped to Senegal once a year. "We don’t have the capacity to handle any more devices at the moment – neither in Germany nor in Africa," says Nies.
Mobility and participation
"Essentially there is no medical equipment industry in Senegal," explains Buki Akomolafe. She has already accompanied several project trips. "This is why it is commonly accepted for people to crawl on the floor there, because they simply don’t have any other alternative. Or they improvise: they build walkers made of metal and wood or a type of wheelchair made from plastic chairs."
However, Akomolafe, Nies and their fellow helpers refuse to accept these kinds of conditions. "If thanks to our effort just one person gets a wheelchair, becomes more mobile and is able to return to school for instance or participate in social life, we know that it is all worth it," Nies explains his motivation.
The people in Senegal are generally very happy about the walkers and wheelchairs, even if they are often not perfectly adjusted to them of course. "Initially, children in particular are often overwhelmed by the situation and frightened," Akomolafe has noticed. However, this quickly subsides when they subsequently receive the respective mobility training – whether it’s learning to climb stairs correctly with the walker or specific wheelchair training.
"I remember one young man, who used to crawl along the floor for years," says Akomolafe. "After he received his walking frame, he was able to join a skilled trades training program. Now he also actively plays wheelchair basketball."
In addition to donations, the association also provides awareness building and training. In Senegal, this is primarily accomplished in workshops that are meant to be understood as helping people to help themselves.
"But we shouldn’t just reach people with disabilities; the decision makers in politics also need to change their thinking," says Nies. "We cannot take over the responsibility of the government indefinitely by providing basic medical equipment. There needs to be a political change that makes it possible for the government to pay for the costs of medical supplies."