Tom Williams jokingly refers to his group as ‘glorified dustbin men’, a title coined since his purely recreational, if notably adventurous jaunt to The Gambia sparked a collection of over 200 prosthetic limbs.
I suppose it’s fair to say that driving over 6,000 kilometres from Leicestershire, England, to the west coast of Africa with a batch of recycled artificial body parts renders the sentiment. This is the plan for two friends involved in Tom’s project and the next step for Legs4Africa, founded after a chance encounter with a ‘beautiful family’ while on an expedition there in 2010.
Tom and a friend met amputee Paul, his wife and children and saw the impact the circumstance had. It’s the ‘emotional as well as the physical trauma of the disability,’ explains Tom. The Gambia is a country with limited healthcare; needless to say, securing an artificial limb is difficult – and expensive.
He was inspired to do something good with his spontaneously insightful trip, found a prosthetics expert in Portsmouth and had a leg made. He flew it out to Paul. ‘It brought about a feeling like no other,’ Tom described.
‘I went up and knocked on their door. I was just holding this leg – it was quite an experience; a truly amazing moment.’
Tom came back thinking that was it – but learned the maker, Karl Ives, had 18 more. It seemed there was something further that could be done.
Tom talks of those who are ‘immobile’ and have little hope of receiving an artificial limb, while noting that around 2,000 used prosthetic limbs are destroyed in Britain every year. Once they’ve been built and worn here they can’t be reused under EU regulation. Redundant and forgotten, these limbs have the power to change lives thousands of kilometres away.
Since that realization, Tom has forged a partnership with the Disability and Social Welfare department at the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital in Banjul, the country’s capital. All the limbs sent out will be ‘fully disinfected, tagged, tracked and distributed freely’ through a fair waiting list – and it is through the link with an official body in The Gambia that the work can evolve safely.
‘These legs give people renewed independence,’ Tom told me. ‘They help the unemployed get back into work; parents raise children; improve quality of life.’
Tom’s initial journey, which he admits now was as much metaphorical as it was physical, has developed into an international foray into the world of charity and medical aid. A photographer by trade, he had no knowledge whatsoever of prosthetics or amputations – a typically limited British understanding of the plight of many in poorer communities. Now he hopes to see Legs4Africa grow and the utilization of our dispensable resources amplified.
Of course, it costs. So a crowdfunder campaign, ‘Leg it to Africa’, was started, and has now nearly halfway to its $9,000 target. The money is set to fund the next – and first major – journey in April, while also going towards a documentary to highlight the work, planned by yet more friends willing to get involved and champion the cause.