The Addis Guzo project

In Addis Ababa, a new day is breaking. A young man sits on the edge of the bed and puts his clothes on to play basketball. He looks sporty and full of energy. Only when he goes outside, you can see his handicap: he moves in a squat away, he uses his arms to push his legs forward. However, there is the utensil in front of the door, which enables him to live a nearly normal life: a wheelchair that he received from the wheelchair workshop of the Addis Guzo association in Berne.

The scene comes from a video on the laptop by Bernhard Wissler, who is behind the project Addis Guzo together with his wife Christine Oberli. The association was founded in Bern in 2010 and is recognized in Switzerland as a charitable organization.

Although it was not the plan at first, Wissler built his own wheelchair workshop in Ethiopia, where used wheelchairs from Switzerland are rebuilt, adapted and repaired – the Addis Guzo project. Wissler emphasizes the support of his wife as a central element: “I would never have done it without them.” The fight with local authorities until the organization was recognized was extremely difficult. In 2012, the workshop was finally opened. “If we had known all this before – we would not have done it,” says Wissler.

But the project has not been limited to the wheelchair workshop for a long time. Meanwhile, a whole center for people with disabilities has emerged: It is sewn, candles pulled, dolls produced and pottery. Add to all this work sports and fun: a place where people can play wheelchair basketball. He would not have dreamed that the trained electronics mechanic and the occupational therapist would once set up a center for people with disabilities in Ethiopia. “We actually got into this project quite naively.”

“Had we known all that before – we would not have done it.”

Would Wissler call his commitment a development aid? “That’s too strong a word,” he says. He prefers to call his project “disaster relief”, because in Ethiopia the provision of wheelchairs is catastrophic. Wissler describes the situation on the ground like this: Some people live with extreme curvatures of the spine or crawl on the ground because the legs are paralyzed. Some are so handicapped by their disability that they have to be carried around by relatives.

Addis Guzo wants to counteract these conditions with wheelchairs and therapy. What distinguishes the aid project from others? “That we not only deliver the wheelchairs, but also repair them. This is how we ensure a long-term commitment, “says Wissler. Other organizations were working with cheap materials from China that would quickly break down. To prevent wheelchairs from being resold, each product gets a number, is photographed and registered in a database. Anyone who resells spare parts quickly becomes unmasked and does not receive a new wheelchair.

Staying in Africa forever was out of the question for Wissler. “There are two worlds on a planet for me,” he says. From the beginning, it was the plan to hand over the center to a local project manager. The center is now running autonomously with the support of Wissler and Oberli from Switzerland. In Interlaken, Wissler has set up a workshop with the newly founded Rollaid association and the partner company Qualifutura, which collects, repairs and sends wheelchairs and spare parts to Ethiopia. Recycling has become a kind of passion for Wissler: almost all the material in the workshop is second-hand.

A lot of material has already accumulated in Interlaken. The only electrical parts are the robust traction devices. Consciously no electric wheelchairs are sent to Addis Ababa, because there would be a lack of funds to repair the defective electronics. Only those who have to travel a long distance to work receive such a luxurious traction device. Finally, what does Addis Guzo actually mean? Wissler smiles. It is an expression in Amharic, a language of Ethiopia. It means «new journey» or «new journey». 

Author: Céline Rüttimann
This story was originally published on Der Bund