Pafupi Builds His Own Tricycle for Narrow Trails

Pafupi lived in a remote village in Malawi, Africa. Because his legs were paralyzed by polio, he had started school later than most children. The school was too far away to walk to on his braces and crutches. He dreamed of having a hand-powered tricycle. But the trails where he lived were much too narrow for the big, wide tricycles made in the cities.

Pafupi was good with his hands and had an inventive streak. As a child he had made a guitar from old tin cans and scraps of leather. And he had learned to play it fairly well.

When he was 17, Pafupi decided to make a small tricycle that was narrow enough to ride on local trails. He used parts of 3 old bicycles, an old flywheel, and bits of scrap metal. He had no welding equipment. So he hammered the ends of the pieces together precisely, like interlocking fingers. Although the joints were slightly flexible, they were remarkably strong.

On a trip to Malawi, Kennett Westmacott, an innovator of disability aids, saw Pafupi on his home-made tricycle. (In England, Kennett and his wife, Jean, run People Potential, where they teach ordinary people to design and make simple assistive devices. See pages 72 and 74). Fascinated by the appropriateness of Pafupi’s home-made tricycle, Kennett and his students tried to build one like it in a training workshop. But their modified version had problems. To get it to work well, the group had to rebuild the tricycle, closely following Pafupi’s design. Then they modified it with a bigger front wheel and other helpful changes.

An outstanding feature of Pafupi’s tricycle was that he could pedal it in reverse (make it back up), something Kennett had not seen before in small, chain-driven tricycles.

The group was amazed that Pafupi—a village boy in primary school—was able to create such a well-adapted and functional vehicle, all done with very simple tools and without welding. Their respect for the skill and creativity of disabled villagers increased greatly.