When I visited a rainforest in southeastern Cameroon for the first time in October 2006, I saw a man with brawny arms riding a hand-crank tricycle I had never seen before. Accompanied by children, the man came hurtling down the unpaved road at such speed that I had no idea he was on a wheelchair for people with disabilities (Photo1).
This hand-cranked tricycle is used widely throughout Africa. It can be seen on a daily basis in Cameroon - on roads linking the villages, in mbandjo (“village gathering places” in Baka language), in workshops throughout the towns, at intersections where peddlers gather (Photo 2), at bars where people enjoy relaxing, and in the cacao fields (Photo 3).
The technology for making these hand-crank tricycles was conveyed to Cameroon (where I conducted my research) by engineers from the Republic of the Congo, and NGOs in the capital of Yaounde have been central to their manufacture in the country (Photos 4 and 5). The government is currently distributing these wheelchairs for free as part of its policies for people with disabilities. Through assistance measures beginning in 2006 and up until 2009, 348 hand-cranked wheelchairs were distributed (about half (191) being the folding-type ones often found in Japan).
Photo 4: The three machines needed to make hand-cranked wheelchairs. From left to right - a machine to make curves in the reinforcing rods (a major component of the wheelchair), a machine to cut the rods, and a tricycle mold. All are manufactured in Yaounde City.
With the help of town welders, a hand-cranked tricycle can be made using just three machines. Such tricycles are vital to the mobility of people with disabilities in Cameroon, where many of the roads are steep. People use them even to get into the fields, where weeds grow thickly. Although the hand-cranked tricycle have turned rusty brown in color, having traveled with them here and there for many years already, people take great care to maintain them so they can be used for as long as possible (Photo 6). Recently, some have even dared to make three-wheeled wheelchairs from scratch using bicycles (Photo7).
In a survey by social workers of 254 people with disabilities in a province in Cameroon’s southeast, 83 said that they needed a hand-cranked tricycle. The government budget currently allows the distribution of two tricycles a year to this province. This means that the last of the people in need must wait 40 years to get one.
One man with physical disabilities in a rural village in southeastern Cameroon continued to send petitions for a tricycle to a town far away. A tricycle arrived after his fifth try, but it took 15 years. He said that he did not leave his home until the tricycle came. Now he goes into the town center everyday, traveling 5 kilometers away to do his own shopping. But what if no one in the village had been around to write petitions for him? What if the vehicle delivering the petitions did not go through his village? What if he had given up right away? And what if no one in the village even knew about the existence of tricycles? If one of these elements were missing, what would his life be like today?
The hand-cranked tricycles dash through the town’s bustling crowds, and people are truly fearless as they powerfully use their arms to rattle down the unpaved, red earth roads and race up slopes. A look at their brawny arms, however, shows just how much strength they need to do this.
There are still people near the village who are in the same situation. How can we begin to approach them?