Biomechanics Makes Strides in Africa

Posted on December 20, 2012

Reflections on my visit to the Tanzania Training Centre for Orthopaedic Technologists (TATCOT)


Andrea Hemmerich,
ISB-TATCOT Project Champion and
ISB-Economically Developing Countries (EDC) Project Officer

A collaboration between the ISB and the Tanzania Training Centre for Orthopaedic Technologists (TATCOT) began over seven years ago when the ISB President at the time visited the centre and learned of the “grand vision” to install a gait lab to support teaching, clinical, and research initiatives. In a developing country such as Tanzania, the necessary resources to acquire and maintain specialized motion capture equipment for such a purpose are nearly impossible to obtain. For Harold Shangali and Longini Mtalo (TATCOT Principal and Deputy Principal, Academics, respectively) it was therefore serendipitous to say the least that contributions from several organisations within the ISB network could make this vision a reality after only two years!

Since then, the ISB has promoted the project through technical and financial support and, more recently, shifted its focus to working with TATCOT on the broader objective to further develop its biomechanics programme, for which the gait lab constitutes just one of many tools. In 2011, Julie Steele (past-President) and I helped expand our international collaboration to foster this more comprehensive strategy to grow biomechanics in Africa, and were fortunate to be able to bring many key partners together at the ISB2011 Congress.

The common challenge of distance communication that accompanies such international collaborations prompted the proposal for another meeting. In early 2012, Harold Shangali invited me as Project Champion to visit TATCOT in order to support their in-house biomechanics training initiatives, and in particular, to address some of the issues that had arisen with student research projects. Having been involved with the partnership for several years and being familiar with the equipment that originally came from the University of Cape Town where I had completed my PhD research, I was confident that I could contribute to the advancement of our agenda through an extended visit and so gladly accepted. With the support of the ISB Committee for Economically Developing Countries (EDC), I arranged a 3-week trip to TATCOT and arrived in Moshi on October 1st, 2012.

I was fortunate to be able to stay in Harold’s guesthouse during most of my visit, which gave me an opportunity to meet his family, as well as experience some of the routine challenges, such as power outages, in that part of the world. (It was suggested, however, that I brave the rainy season - driving down the mountainside along muddy roads - for a real adventure!) Since I had spent 8 months in East Africa twelve years earlier, some of these experiences were familiar to me. But the most invaluable insight I gained from spending time with Harold both at TATCOT and his home was an appreciation for his motivation, strategies, and commitment to the growth of orthopaedic technology for the promotion and wellbeing of disabled people in the greater region of East Africa and beyond.

It was clear to me from the start that Harold’s strategic thinking towards long-term initiatives would result in continued success for their centre and our collaboration. By placing emphasis on a competent and passionate team of core people to develop the biomechanics program at TATCOT, he will ensure the continued growth of the discipline in all desired aspects: teaching, research, and clinical work. Some of these team members I had met on previous occasions in Brussels and Cape Town; during my recent time in Moshi, I was able to meet the rest of the team and get to know their individual expertise and aspirations. It was more than encouraging to learn that some of the barriers to communication that I had encountered in the previous year could be attributed to the academic pursuits of some of these core team members: Longini had spent the previous year in Norway undertaking his Masters; Joachim Moshy, gait lab manager, had just completed the first year of the Diploma Course in Orthopaedic Technology; and Fortunatus Gitarda, a recent graduate of the TATCOT BSc Program in Prosthetics & Orthotics, had only just been hired to take on some of the responsibilities around gait lab operation and maintenance. It was no surprise that progress toward some of our short-term goals had been delayed in order to prioritize these long-term, capacity-building activities.

Fortunatus Gitarda, new gait lab manager, trains with Longini Mtalo (left)
and Joachim Moshy (right).

During my three weeks at TATCOT, we fulfilled many of our objectives, such as providing direction on gait analysis and biomechanics research opportunities, identifying current needs (e.g. complementary lab equipment, library resources, and advanced staff training), and outlining a proposal for ISB membership that is affordable and logistically feasible for TATCOT affiliates. Professor Bart Koopman, one of our collaborators in the Netherlands, was also able to spend a week at TATCOT during which time he gave lectures on upper-limb and spine biomechanics to staff and students, as well as discussed with local staff opportunities for expanding our collaboration. A detailed report of the visit outcomes will be available on the ISB-EDC Information webpage early in the new year.

Left: Bart Koopman teaches gait analysis basics to undergraduate students.
Right: Bart Koopman (far left) and Harold Shangali (far right) with the TATCOT academic staff.

One of my primary objectives for this visit was to further develop the association between the ISB and TATCOT; trust in these relationships, of course, lies in the hands of the people involved. Spending almost three weeks in Moshi allowed me to get to know those people who have invested the greatest stakes in the TATCOT biomechanics programme. Working together during this time allowed us to discover one another’s skills and ambitions and to demonstrate that we are all committed to achieving our common goals. I truly believe that together we are making strides towards the development of biomechanics in Africa!

 Lunch at TATCOT. From left to right: Fortunatus Gitarda, Longini Mtalo,
Andrea Hemmerich, and Harold Shangali.

I would like to sincerely thank my ISB colleagues on the EDC Committee for supporting this visit, as well as my generous hosts at TATCOT for their friendly welcome (“karibu”) and enthusiastic contributions throughout this project. I look forward to meeting you all again soon!

Andrea Hemmerich,
EDC Project Officer

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