Engineering capstone program aims to help victims of brutal civil war in Sierra Leone

During Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war from 1991 to 2002, rebels in the African country cut off the hands, arms and legs of more than 27,000 people. Their horrific attacks spread terror and left their victims permanently disabled.

Now, 15 years later, Sierra Leone is no longer in a time of war, but most of the amputees who survived struggle to complete daily tasks and provide for their families. Unlike medical amputations executed at strategic locations, the rebels’ crude methods left limbs that make fitting prosthetics extremely difficult.

These men and women have had precious few resources – until now.

BYU engineering students have teamed with the nonprofit Engage Now Africa (ENA) to create a socket for above-knee amputees that fits neatly into prosthetics made available by the International Red Cross.

“In addition to the difficulty of being an amputee, the poverty in Sierra Leone limits their ability to purchase adequate sockets,” said student Zac Lichtenberg. “What we’ve created will open the door to easier manufacturing with affordable materials.”

The students designed their socket specifically with materials and equipment that are readily available in Sierra Leone. The result is a customizable, adjustable socket that can be produced for roughly $40. The project was done in conjunction with the BYU Mechanical Engineering Capstone program, an annual effort wherein senior engineering students take on some 30 sponsored projects.

When ENA learned BYU Capstone was looking for a humanitarian project, they thought it would be a perfect fit. ENA has been working in Sierra Leone for 10 years (the nonprofit started in 2002 and is also in Ghana, Ethiopia and Namibia) and focuses on efforts to strengthen families and individuals with the goal of ending poverty in Africa.

“Very few of the 27,000 amputees have prosthetics, and if they do have them, they don’t usually work,” said Lynette Gay, chairman of the board and president of ENA. “The students found the most cost-effective, most durable and best-fitting outcome. There is no reason why this couldn’t be extremely successful.”

While Lichtenberg said the socket still needs some refining, an upcoming step is for students to travel to Sierra Leone to work with doctors there to further develop the devices. Gay said the students and her organization are committed to see the project through and believes the sockets will be in use within a year.

With Sierra Leone ranking 180 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index, students and ENA representatives are anxious to get the solution on the ground.

“It has been a privilege to work with these students,” said Jennifer Ellsworth, executive director of ENA and a BYU alum. “They’re dedicated, they’re hardworking and they’re willing to learn. I felt like they went above and beyond to get this right for our recipients.”