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Chad: restoring lost dignity

15-04-2008 Feature

In a society where it is difficult for people with a handicap to find their place, orthopaedic care helps the victims of mines, accidents and road accidents to restart their lives.


  ©ICRC/I. Kaloga    
  Djouassoum Djabou tries on a new prosthesis accompanied by a CARK staff member and an ICRC delegate.    

“In our society, people see a handicap as a curse,” explains Mahamat Bodingar, administration and finance manager of the Kabalaye limb-fitting and rehabilitation centre ( Centre d'appareillage et de rééducation de Kabalaye, CARK ) in N'Djamena, Chad. “Without help, these people remain marginalized for the rest of their lives. In the villages, people believe they’ve been punished for sins committed in a previous life.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been supporting the CARK in N'Djamena since 1982. The organization pays for people injured by mines and munitions to be fitted with artificial limbs. It supplies the components and basic materials needed to manufacture artificial limbs, orthotic devices, walking sticks and crutches. The ICRC facilitates the training of eight prosthetic-orthotic technicians at the centre, by regularly sending specialists to update their colleagues’ skills.

 Three hundred people treated every year  

On average, the centre treats 300 handicapped people a year: people injured by mines and munitions, victims of road accidents and people with polio or other illnesses. All come to the centre in the hope of returning to normal life once their treatment is finished.

Each patient receives individual care, ranging from the production of artificial limbs and mobility aids (wheelchairs and crutches) to the fitting of artificial limbs and orthotic devices. The centre provides rehabilitation and physiotherapy, and continues to follow up patients afterwards.

Djouassoum Djabou is 41. He lived without a left arm for 12 years before coming to the CARK. In 1993, his left arm had to be amputated at the shoulder, severely disrupting his career as a young primary school teacher. “My parents-in-law rejected me because I only had one arm. They were afraid I wouldn’t be able to support their daughter. It’s a battle to be taken seriously as a teacher. People think that having an arm missing affects your ability to think. It ’s meant I’ve never been able to get a job in a State school.”

The CARK has restored Djabou’s hopes of reintegrating into society. Prosthetic technicians have built him an artificial arm in proportion to his body. This allows him to accomplish such everyday tasks as picking things up and getting dressed. More importantly, the artificial arm hides his handicap. “They’ve put back the missing part,” says Djabou. “People in the street won’t know I ever had an accident.”

 Re-learning the essential  

Serge is waiting his turn next to Djabou. He has known the CARK teams for almost 15 years. This time, he has come for a new artificial leg. In 1981, he was injured by a shell left over from the fighting in 1979. He is a farmer, with six children to support, and returning to normal life was anything but easy. “When I woke up after the explosion, I didn’t know where I was. Luckily, some kind souls took me to N'Djamena, where I received emergency treatment, but my right leg was so badly injured they had to amputate it. It’s difficult for a farmer to earn a living when every movement is difficult and painful.”

While the technicians are covering his stump in plaster to make a mould for his new artificial leg, Serge jokes as he looks at the equipment around him. “It feels OK now. I remember my first leg. It was made out of wood and metal, and it was heavy. Nowadays you don’t even feel the leg. It’s much more comfortable.”

Over the last 15 years, Serge has become friends with the CARK technicians. He has watched them grow up, and develop as professionals. “They were children back then. But they were the ones who taught this old man to walk again. I can never thank them enough. Them and the people who help them.”

In 2007, the ICRC paid for over 100 people to be fitted with artificial limbs. Like Djabou and Serge, they will now be able to lead as normal a life as possible and contribute to the well-being of their families and relatives.

Experts on reducing the risks linked to mines and other munitions are evaluating the situation in areas affected by the fighting in late 2007 and February 2008. They will be presenting recommendations to the authorities on how to prevent more people being injured by these devices, which still litter certain parts of the country.