System D

Système D stands for débrouillard. There is a long tradition in Africa of people making do with what they have. People have forever been making utilitarian goods out of things we usually discard such as tin cans, rubber tires, CDs and more.

Yet at the same time there is a persistent sense of hopelessness, victim hood and low confidence in the ability of the continent to pull itself out of the morass of poverty, illness and strife.

I see light points everywhere but they don’t seem to add up. There are people I know or have heard of who have been able to harness the innate talent at ingenuity.

My ICRC colleague A. in Bamako changed the outlook and attitude of the rehab center’s welder. He used to sit under a tree waiting for someone to bring him something to weld. When A. Told him “you can make a wheelchair” the welder rolled his eyes. But when A. showed up with a plan and materials he learned how to make a wheelchair. Since then he has made lots of frames. The director of the Centre was so proud of him that he took me over and they posed for a picture. The primitive storage room behind him was full of shiny frames. The director promised he would give him a proper workshop. Now it is a slab of concrete with a corrugated iron roof. No walls, looking more like an oil change station than a manufacturing workshop.

The possibilities are endless but it seems there always needs to be someone else from outside the system who is not paralyzed by the constraints. So too was the man who asked the artisanal shoe and slipper maker, sitting outside the museum on the sidewalk whether he would be interested in learning how to make orthopedic shoes. The shoemaker himself had a disability and could not walk. He said yes and rest is history. He is the only orthopedic shoemaker in the country and now training a young man to take over when he retired in a few years.

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