Life is unpredictable. It is easy to take for granted some seemingly mundane and routine activities like walking to school or driving home. But one cruel twist of fate can change that in the brink of an eye.
This mirrors the life story of 56-year-old Bylon Kondowe, an information technology specialist from Blantyre. On December 22 2007 he was involved in a road accident that fractured his spinal chord and took his ability to walk.
Kondowe was driving back to his base in Blantyre after a three-day working trip in the capital city, Lilongwe. He was busy chatting with three of his colleagues when their vehicle collided with another vehicle coming from the opposite direction.
He recalls: “It was a day like any other and I was so excited to unite with my family. However, as we approached Senzani, we got involved in this terrible accident, my three colleagues in the car were also severely injured and one person in the other car died on the spot. I was unconscious for hours.”
Sadly, this was the last day he would ever walk.
The father of four spent months in a hospital and received medical treatment for a year. The injury and the subsequent paralysis made it difficult for him to get his life back on track.
After trying everything in his power to restore a semblance of normalcy to his professional life, he was forced to retire before his time.
“Everything in my family completely changed, children had to change schools and my wife automatically took up the breadwinner’s role, I don’t know what could have become of us if she wasn’t working,” he explains.
Meanwhile, Kondowe is heading an organisation called Spinal Injuries Association of Malawi (Siam) which promotes awareness of the challenges faced by its more than 1 000 members.
“Our main challenge is the lack of equipment and treatment space for such injuries in public facilities as well as lack of awareness and support from the public. The rest are common problems such as resultant paralysis which has a devastating physical, mental, social and vocational consequences,” he says.
He urges authorities to invest in quality health care and rehabilitation to help injured people remain useful in society.
Kondowe further says the country needs policies and increased awareness on accident prevention, saying about 70 percent of people injured in road accidents in the country suffer spinal cord injury which has devastating effects.
“This increases the economic burden not only on the person who sustains the injury, but also their family,” he says.
Blessings Chapweteka, executive director for Child Help-Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus (CH-SBH), an organisation that works with children with spinal defects, says the shared interests motivated his organisation to partner with Siam.
Siam and CH-SBH work to empower the injured so that they remain independent by doing routine activities on their own to reduce the burden that would otherwise be placed on their families.
Says Chapweteka: “We want them to integrate into society and continue to be productive citizens. However, for example, due to spinal defects, some SCI patients have neurogenic bladder and bowel issues, this means they cannot control urine.
“Therefore, because of these conditions, it is hard for them to mix with people and are deprived of many basic human rights.”
His organisation makes available materials such as catheters, trains the patients to take care of themselves, mobilises resources for equipment in hospitals and raises awareness on the needs of the patients.
Malawi is one of the countries with a high prevalence of road accidents.
According to national police spokesperson James Kadadzera, the rate of road accidents has in the first half of this year risen by 23 percent to 5 990 accidents, compared to 4 860 registered during the same period last year.
Out of this year’s accidents, 636 were fatal and claimed 720 lives, a 12 percent rise from 2020 which recorded 570 fatal road accidents that claimed 616 lives.
The accidents in the first half of the year left 3 846 people with minor and serious injuries, the police records show. In contrast, within the same period last year, 3 313 sustained various degrees of injuries.
Among factors contributing to the accidents, over-speeding ranks highly with 2 010 accidents, while tail-gating or keeping too close to another motorist comes second with 710 accidents attributed to that cause. Others factors include ignoring road traffic signs, careless overtaking and reversing negligently.
The police spokesperson said the 4 860 accidents recorded last year were a slight drop from the 4 900 accidents registered in 2019.
During Africa Road Safety Day commemorations last November, Deputy Minister of Transport and Public Works Nancy Chaola Mdooko said it was worrying that the road accidents trend shows that those losing their lives are within the age range of 25 to 44 years.
She said: “This is very worrisome considering that this age group [comprises] economically active members of society who could have been contributing to the economic development of the nation.”
During last year’s event, Department of Road Traffics and Safety Services deputy director Annie Kandoje pleaded with the public to follow road traffic rules and regulations to reduce the carnage.
She recommended awareness and civic education programmes as well as conducting traffic law enforcement initiatives aimed at influencing change among road users to reduce accidents, among others.
The directorate estimates that road accidents are the ninth leading cause of deaths across all age groups, accounting for 1.35 million deaths worldwide annually.
It is also estimated that 90 percent of road traffic deaths and injuries occur in low and middle-income countries yet such countries have 54 percent of the world’s registered vehicles.