During my UC Human Rights Fellowship in Uganda this summer, I took a day trip with CA Bikes founder Christopher Ategeka deep into Kyenjojo village to meet a recipient of a hand-pedaled tricycle, which can be ridden by people unable to use their feet. CA Bikes makes bicycles and wheelchairs to distribute to HIV-positive youth and other vulnerable children in Uganda who live between 8 and 20 kilometers from their schools.
The boy we met, a 17-year-old named Valist, lived in a room with walls made of mud, wood, and newspapers. When we walked into his 8 x 8 room, I saw blood pooled on his sheets and smelled a horrid odor of rotting flesh.
Valist greeted me and thanked Chris for the tricycle. Through the translator, I immediately asked what happened and the boy shared his story
Valist was walking to school on a Thursday morning eight years ago when he fell ill with a fever. A few weeks later, he lost all sensation in his lower body and was no longer able to stand or walk.
Receiving a hand-powered tricycle from CA Bikes allowed him to continue to do daily functions and go to school for a short period. A bright boy, Valist was doing very well in school. But after a couple of years without going to the hospital and seeking treatment, his condition had worsened. We were told that he could not feel or move his lower body, and that rats were even seen biting and feasting on his feet.
The ordeal caused tension at home and led his parents to argue. Valist says his father was jailed for six months for trying to cut his throat. The father felt his boy’s illness was a burden and wanted to end the family’s misery and Valist’s suffering. Valist’s mother felt otherwise and continued to fight for and care for him.
I watched Valist knitting a reed basket—facing the most difficult, unimaginable circumstances—and I felt a range of sadness, uncertainty, and hopelessness. Ironically, I did not see those same feelings in the boy. Valist seemed so full of life and determined to overcome his hurdles.
Although Chris arranged for the boy to be transported from his home and brought to a hospital the next day, we soon found that other challenges awaited us. First, hospitals in Kyenjojo do not perform services such as picking up sick or dying patients from far villages. We had to privately hire nurses and buy fuel for the ambulance. Moreover, even after we were able to help Valist get to the hospital—which is government-funded and thus more affordable—we learned that only one surgeon in the entire town could help him. This surgeon was also running a private clinic where he could make more money.
We also wanted to place Valist in the care of a school or organization where his health could be monitored daily and where he could start attending classes again. In addition to helping children access school, CA Bikes connects kids with health care and other services in an effort to meet more of their needs. Cases like Valist’s are also why CA Bikes has ventured to designing and distributing motorcycle ambulances.
While the experience of meeting Valist was heartbreaking for me, the work of CA Bikes, coupled with the young boy’s strong will, have also inspired me.
The views expressed are that of the individual Human Rights Fellow and not necessarily of the Human Rights Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law.