In warring South Sudan, you must trade your limbs for your life. At least, this was the reality for Daniel Omar, who in March 2012, at the age of 14, embraced a tree trunk to shield himself from a bomb’s blow, and stepped away without his hands. Aware of the burden he would place on his family, in 2012, Omar told a Time reporter that he would rather have died when the government’s Antonov aircraft dropped its lethal cargo.
Seeing this declaration on paper shocked Mick Ebeling, who was then several thousand kilometers away in Los Angeles.
The Californian is the founder of a US startup called Not Impossible Labs, a non-profit organization that builds open-access devices to assist people facing seemingly insurmountable physical challenges.
“I’ve got three little boys,” Ebeling says. “It was hard for me to read a story about a young boy who had lost his arms.”
Despite the fact that tens of thousands have lost their arms and legs to the scything shrapnel from bomb blasts in South Sudan, providing prosthetics is not a priority for the many humanitarian organizations there, at least not yet.
“Medecins Sans Frontieres is principally an emergency organization,” says David Nash, head of its mission in South Sudan. “At the moment, it’s a case of being able to find the people who need lifesaving.”
However, for the sake of South Sudan’s future, access to affordable prosthetics must be welcomed too, he adds.
In November last year, Ebeling traveled to Sudan for a month, hoping to find Daniel and build him an arm. He took with him printers, spools of plastic and cables. The 3D printers that create the prosthetic’s plastic parts make the device seem high-tech, but the resulting arm is really just a simple, mechanical device.
The arm works by using movement to trigger cables, threaded throughout the plastic structure like ligaments.
When the user flexes and bends the remaining portion of their arm, this motion tenses the cables, which in turn curl and uncurl the fingers at the tip.
There are situations that the technology cannot remedy, because the prosthetic has to be attached to something substantial.
“With the technology we currently have, it’s hard to help people with no arm left,” says Elliot Kotek, cofounder of Not Impossible Labs. “There needs to be at least a little bit of a stump.”
However, from the 50,000-plus amputees in South Sudan, many of whom are young people, a sizable number could be helped.
The project was named “Project Daniel” from the start, but there never was any certainty that they would even find Daniel.
The teenager lived between the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan and his home in the Nuba Mountains, a disputed territory that has long suffered the abuses of warring factions and government bombing.
Then there was the worry that if they did find him, he might not be receptive.
“We thought: ‘Maybe he doesn’t want to get an arm from this tall, bald, white dude,’” Kotek laughs, referring to Ebeling. “’Maybe he’s fine as he is.’”
Indeed, even though he did sign on, Daniel, now aged 16, proved reclusive at first, peeking only occasionally over his shoulder at the foreigner who had come to build him a limb, but once the prosthetic — which takes a few days to make and costs ￡60 (US$99) — was fitted, that changed.
“It was a pretty amazing thing to see this boy come out of his shell,” Ebeling says, recalling the moment Daniel picked up a spoon for the first time since he had lost his hands. “Getting Daniel to feed himself was a highlight that was right up there with watching my kids being born.”