Finding a reason to live after losing a leg in car crash

Every day 10 people on average die in road traffic crashes in Uganda, which is the highest in East Africa, according to police and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa’s Road Safety Performance Review report for Uganda published in 2018. The World Health Organisation puts the annual fatalities to over 10,000 people. Thousands more are left with life-changing injuries, some become destitute. Many of those involved in the crashes are young people whose lives and dreams are suddenly cut short. Charlotte Kangume is one such victim. She recently recounted her story to a group of journalists undergoing training on road safety reporting. The Independent’s Ronald Musoke captured her story.

Kangume, 28, is the co-founder of Amputee Self-Help Network-Uganda; an organisation that helps road crash victims to cope with the aftermath. She co-founded it in 2019 with Alex Munyambabazi, an amputee. They met in hospital where Kangume also had her leg amputated.

Most amputees in Uganda are because of road crashes, bodaboda and car crashes.

“It is so unfortunate that simple things are making us lose a leg or a life,” Kangume says.

She remembers the night of January 26, 2018 like it just happened yesterday. “We were coming from a graduation party and were dropping a friend to her house. We were drunk,” Kangume says.

Her friend’s neighbourhood had a narrow road which was flanked by a storm water channel. So as the driver tried to manoeuver and turn around the car after Kangume’s friend had reached her home, one of the car’s tyres got stuck in the trench.

That marked the genesis of Kangume’s troubles.

Even when they were all drunk and tired, they tried to push the car out of the trench with little success. Kangume soon gave up the task and decided to lean against a wall fence— metres away from the scene.

Soon, a man from the neighbourhood came around to help. He got into the driver’s seat and tried to steer the car out of the trench but suddenly accelerated and the car jerked forward and crashed Kangume’s lower body damaging her left leg.

“My friends were all intoxicated and only one of them was sober and could help me go to hospital to receive first aid,” she says.

At first it was thought she would be treated and go back home.

“They had just put plates in the knee because they thought I had just got a simple fracture. Life was moving on well and I was even being oriented to walk on crutches,” she says.

But then the injured leg started turning black.The doctor had not noticed immediately that a vein in the back calf area of the leg had been damaged. She was told she had suffered internal bleeding which also caused gangrene. The medics said they were going to try all they could but could not promise that Kangume would not lose her leg. She was eventually told her leg would be amputated.

“When the doctors told me I was going to lose my leg, it was devastation, not only for me but also for my family,” she says.

She says, at first, everyone was against the medical advice.

“I was heartbroken. I did not know how life was going to be for me after the leg is amputated. I am a very social being; I love working; I love going places and adventure. I always want to stand out and I want to be a different girl. So when they told me that, I first prayed.”

“I want to be honest, I had the faith that God would make a last minute change in the theatre because my friends were always in hospital praying with me. I told God that I know I have been a crazy girl but if it is not for me, do it for these people that trust you to make a difference in my life.”

The miracle Kangume expected never came. So she prepared for the surgery. “I told my mother that I wanted to do research about the life of an amputee more so for a girl like me. I also told my friends to get contacts of any amputee they met on the streets of Kampala.”

She says she wanted to talk to anyone so she could get an idea of what she was getting into. She also did the internet research and saw that the amputees were actually going on with their lives.

“I realised that the world has changed so rapidly. She discovered “cool prosthetic limbs” that one could live their lives normally.”

Charlotte Kangume: “My first day using the leg still learning.”

So, off to the theatre, she went. Sadly, her trauma almost began instantly. First, there was a power outage during the operation. She saw doctors panicking.

“They were using ventilator lights and portable equipment to carry on with the surgery. It is so amazing that the operation was successful,” she says, “It is by God’s grace that I did not lose both legs or get paralyzed from the waist downwards.”

But Kangume would face up to more reality after the surgery.

Life’s changes

“It soon hit me that I was leaving theatre without a leg. I was so angry at everybody and anything. I was telling the medics to scratch my leg but the leg was no longer there. They all thought I was going cuckoos.”

Charlotte Kangume – Amputee advocate

“At that moment, I just wanted to see my mother because I felt she was the only one who could understand me and be there with me,” she says, “The beauty of it all is that I had great support and a few friends.”

“But I also lost friends in that whole time. I have friends that blocked me immediately they knew I was losing my leg. Even the friend we were dropping after the graduation party blocked me everywhere.”

Kangume worried about her livelihood. She was among the family’s bread earners but she now thought she would be out of a job. She says she was working as an administrator and bursar at a nursery school in Kampala.

“I was not sure I would still have the job because my job entails a lot of movements. I was worried my boss would not retain me. But then, my boss came around and told me anytime you are ready, you can come and work.”

“I prayed and thanked Jesus because I knew I had a job that can cater for my needs because this whole situation is not cheap when you don’t have money.” So she embarked on her road to rehabilitation.

The first week was so traumatic. I had to learn how to walk since most hospitals in Uganda don’t have such rehabilitation programmes.

“I was lucky that I got some education from the hospital where I got the surgery but even with that education I kept falling over. Every fall was traumatic because when you fall, you forget that you don’t have the natural leg and you fall on the wounded leg.”

“Every time I fell, everyone home would first freeze because they did not know what to do. So I would stay where I have fallen until a doctor in the neighbourhood arrives to give me a painkiller. The pain was so excruciating.”

She says she spent an entire week not wanting to talk to anyone or go out anywhere. “I could wake up one morning and feel frustrated about everything. You are frustrated that you have to get crutches and go to the bathroom.”

“To be honest, I was mentally damaged and emotional trauma is part of me.” “I am scared every time I see the road side trenches. That explains why I rarely use boda bodas. Whenever I use one, it is scary because they are so fast and when I am driving, I try to keep away from the trenches as much as possible.”

Over the last three years since the accident, Kangume says she has adjusted quickly. She says she began evaluating her life and wanted to start afresh. So she started by ending her relationship with her boyfriend.

“I broke-up with him because I did not want him to be with me out of pity. I wanted to start afresh, meet someone when I was already in this new situation so they see what they are getting into,” she says, “I initiated the break-up. He still wants us to be together but I don’t feel it.” She also says she gave up drinking.

Amputee Self-Help Network-Uganda

Kangume says she is now more invested in her non-profit—the Amputee Self-Help Network-Uganda. She recalls how she met the co-founder, Munyambabazi, just before she left hospital.

“When we met, I told him we really need to do something about the situation of amputees in Uganda. Fortunately, he had harboured the same idea and so things happened.”

At Amputee Self-Help Network-Uganda, they believe depression, which often affects amputees, pushes many into alcohol and drug use.

“When I had just left hospital I was drinking a lot because it could help ease the pain of losing a leg,” Kangume recalls.

Kangume says she knows so many people who are still struggling with the new reality of being an amputee.

“I know someone who has not left their bedroom for one and half years,” she says and blames that on the way society reacts to amputees.

“You have people asking you lots of questions,” she says, “It’s a lot of emotional trauma because you are also asking yourself a lot of questions.”

She says some questions are too intrusive: Are you married? Do you have children? Sometimes the hurt comes from within your family and mentions a patient who recently lost his leg and his family; including his own children, suddenly became disrespectful towards him.

“Family is supposed to be supportive but most family members and friends think you are now useless and you are going to be a burden to them yet sometimes all we want is to talk to someone,” she says, “The best way to help people like us is giving us a listening ear; stand with us through it all because a lot is happening.”

Kangume says the Amputee Self-Help Network-Uganda currently supports about 100 people.

“We have a WhatsApp group which now has about 70 people who have smart phones. But I am sure there are many more out there without smart phones. We are still looking for ways of reaching out to them.”

“I particularly want to encourage girls and women to go on with their lives. I tell them that yes, they have lost a body part but they are still beautiful; I tell them that they still have it all and they should be body-positive and confident, and nothing should put them down.”

She believes many others have been inspired to live their lives positively because they have seen members of Self-Help Network-Uganda move around with exposed prosthetic limbs.

She says exposing her prosthetic leg has its pluses.

“It is also an opportunity to tell people that yes, I am an amputee but I am doing all this. I am a baker and I am advocating for different things and I am also a part time lawyer.

“This condition cannot stop me from doing anything I want. I love motorsport and when we entered the motorsport competition last year, people did not think we could drive but we beat so many teams and finished sixth. That should show people that there is nothing we cannot do.”

She says she is particularly surprised at the way employers in the corporate world treat people with disabilities. “People in the corporate world don’t think we can make it or we are as fast as the able-bodied colleagues but we are so intelligent and we have a lot to give the companies out there, only if they could give us a chance.”

In response, the Amputee Self-Help Network-Uganda has come out with several projects that are catering for home skilling including bakery skills, art and crafts, electrical works, and woodwork.

“We feel if you can’t get a formal job, it is better you acquire practical skills that you can use and to bring in money, as long as you are creative.”

Road safety ambassador

“I particularly want to encourage girls and women to go on with their lives. I tell them that yes, they have lost a body part but they are still beautiful; I tell them that they still have it all and they should be body-positive and confident, and nothing should put them down.”

She believes many others have been inspired to live their lives positively because they have seen members of Self-Help Network-Uganda move around with exposed prosthetic limbs.

She says exposing her prosthetic leg has its pluses.

Sadly, road crashes remain a big part of her life. Recently, she says, her brother was involved in a crash.

“The whole car got all smashed but because he had a seat belt he got out all fine,” she says, “That was a good thing for our family because we could have easily lost someone in the family.”

Kangume who has become a road safety ambassador of sorts says it’s dangerous that Ugandans do not wear seat belts because she knows seat belts save lives. She also advocates for responsible driving, including not driving under the influence of alcohol. She has no kind words for people who drive cars with government-registered plates.

“They drive so carelessly with no regard for other road users,” she says.

Going forward, Kangume says she wants to become “a big mentor” of young girls and boys around the world.

“I want these boys and girls to look at me and say ‘I want to be strong and positive like her.’ I want them to be brave and positive like me and know that they can achieve anything they put their minds to. That will give me joy.”

She also hopes to grow her organisation into a big rehabilitation centre taking care of amputees. “We want to offer the psychosocial therapy that people of my kind badly need. Out there is not easy when you are dealing with disability.”

She says Kampala’s transport system is quite challenging but so are other public spaces. She says she does not use taxis because she finds most of the operators mean. She recalls an incident when a friend convinced her to ride a taxi with him and it went badly.

“Even before I could hop into the taxi, the driver bluntly told me that his taxi can’t carry disabled people.

“That was so emotionally torturing for someone like me because I never set out to be lame. People forget that this is something that can happen to anyone anytime.”

Kangume says she knows that God gave her a second chance to life to change the world in any way she can and she takes her Christian beliefs seriously.

“I know I have been through a lot and most people would think I don’t like God but actually I love that ‘gentleman,’” she says, “I know that even when I was stubborn, he stood by me and he is the very reason I am alive.”