How Spider-Man gave a Durban nine-year-old a hand

Clever technology and a passion for superheroes allowed architect Jamie Mitchell to ramp up the power of prosthetics and give a little boy new zest for life.

Aphelele Gumede is a wide-eyed nine-year-old, born in Umlazi, Durban, with a mind full of mischief and wonder, and a passion for the wiles of Marvel comics superhero Spider-Man. He’s also the lead in a real-life tale so magical that wherever he goes, he evokes tears of joy and endless smiles.

But it wasn’t always like that.

Aphelele was born with a deformity: his left arm ends in a narrow stump around mid-forearm, so he’s only got the use of his right hand. But he’s got buckets of pluck and now, because of a serendipitous connection, his life has been transformed.

He’s gone from being a physically challenged child to a full-blown superhero and it is, in large measure, down to the astonishing rapport he developed with a 27-year-old man from Bloemfontein.

Architecture, technology and enablement

Jamie Mitchell is a hip candidate architect in the Free State capital. He’s an uber geek-cum-cool dude, a man with a self-declared obsession for design, mechanics, 3D printers, laser cutting and fabrication. Originally from Klerksdorp, he spent his childhood in the garage with his dad, tinkering. At university, he hated the tedium of building scale models, so taught himself how to build a 3D printer to do the graft.

After graduating, Mitchell went to Britain to visit his uncle, who works for a global financial services firm. Here, he met his uncle’s colleague and one of the drivers behind a non-profit organisation that builds prosthetic hands.

e-Nable connects specialists around the world who volunteer their time to literally give a hand. They share expertise and open source design software to provide prosthetics free of charge to the public.

Mitchell was so taken with the cause and the project that his uncle suggested he join the organisation, which he did. The only thing missing was South African recipients for the prosthetics.

Undated: (From left) Julian Mentz, Aphelele Gumede and Jamie Mitchell. (Photograph: Supplied)

News travels in uncanny ways

Around the same time, a lawyer who attended a conference hosted by the same financial services firm at which Mitchell’s uncle works heard the e-Nable story and was blown away. She told her mom, Peggy Brown, a primary school principal from Amanzimtoti, and Brown put the word out. Her colleague, Verity Eustice from Umbogintwini Primary, said she had the perfect candidate, the irrepressible young Aphelele.

Brown and Eustice contacted Aphelele’s parents, Thembi and Nkumbulo Gumede. Thembi is a teacher, and Nkumbulo is self-employed.

Boy and architect meet

As befitting any tale of technology, they didn’t meet Mitchell in person at first. Rather, they e-met him by video conference between Durban and Bloemfontein.

Mitchell asked them to have a tape measure at hand and they chatted for more than an hour and a half, bonding and taking the dimensions of Aphelele’s forearm.

What might have been a clinical exchange was transformed into an emotionally elevating experience because while Aphelele and Mitchell might be worlds apart, they have one thing in common: they’re both unabashed Spider-Man fans.

Thembi says it was something to behold. In an interview with New Frame , she recalled the encounter.

“Jamie and Aphelele just clicked. It is like they were the same age, everything was ‘wow’ and ‘awesome’ and ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’. It was magic. Jamie is so down-to-earth, he’s like part of the family now.”

And, Aphelele butts in emphatically: “Jamie likes to walk barefoot.”

This cyber-soul connection was made around Easter this year and Mitchell got cracking with the help of friend and fellow architect Julian Mentz and his girlfriend, Liana Pienaar. 

A brand new Spider-Man hand

Collaboratively, they modified designs provided by e-Nable and then printed and cut and stitched and painted. The result was four prosthetic hands, attached to Aphelele’s stump with velcro straps and mechanically operated by lines of gut that allow Aphelele to clench his new “fingers” and make a fist every time he bends his arm inwards, towards himself.

Mitchell explains that the modification of the e-Nable designs and printing of the hands took just hours to implement. “You look at the ergonomics. The design of the human arm is proportional, according to the Golden mean (a mathematical equation also known as the divine proportion, first propounded by the Greek scholar and father of geometry, Euclid).

“It’s the same system and it can be extrapolated. It’s semi-modular, you can just scale the parts,” he continues.

But the killer aspect of the prosthetics is that they were painstakingly modelled on the character of Spider-Man, right down to the authentic meshing on the superhero’s forearm, a detail only die-hard fans like Aphelele and Mitchell fully appreciate.

“Jeepers man, I generally can’t stop thinking when I am working on something. But with Aphelele, when I was working on his hands, I couldn’t shut down. I just went mental. I was obsessed. He’s such a cool little guy and we connected so much.”

The in-the-flesh meeting between the Spider-Man fans took place at a party for the fitting of the hand at Aphelele’s school, where his teachers arranged a Spider-Man stand-in.

But Aphelele says that guy just didn’t cut the mustard: “I asked him to jump on to the roof but he couldn’t.”

The trophy went to Mitchell and Aphelele. Eustice described the encounter between the boy and the architect: “They are kindred spirits … The emotion was overwhelming.” 

Brown says it was one of the most rewarding experiences in her 42 years as a teacher.

“You couldn’t contain them. When Aphelele opened and closed his hand for the first time, Jamie actually vibrated. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room and I am not so sure who was more excited, Jamie or Aphelele.”

Mitchell says, “It was the craziest thing ever. I kept thinking, ‘Oh dear God, please don’t let it snap. I had no idea it would work as well, but when it did, I just started jumping around.”

Thembi Gumede says in most respects Aphelele is a normal boy like his peers, but with the special edge that is sometimes forged by adversity.

When he was a baby, the family wrote off the idea of a prosthetic hand because a specialist said it would cost R600 000. The materials for the one Mitchell made cost R37.

Aphelele is keen on soccer and swimming. His 14-year-old sister, Slindokuhle, describes him as alternately annoying and cute. 

He’s fascinated by the world and since he got the new hand, Aphelele has become a charming celebrity.

27 June 2019: Unabashed fans, Jamie Mitchell and Aphelele Gumede painstakingly modelled the prosthetic on the character of Spider-Man, right down to the authentic meshing on the superhero’s forearm.

The superhero of Umlazi

Neighbours want to see his hand and curious strangers approach them in shopping malls. Aphelele never fails to please. He doesn’t smile, he beams.

Aphelele has taken to placing his hands on his hips and pushing his chest out. “I am like Spider-Man, he’s a superhero. He really jumps over the roof. Jamie is amazing. He’s great. He is going to make my hand shoot webs. I’m happy about that.”

Mitchell says he is indeed working on a gizmo to shoot webs. 

Aphelele’s hand is a prototype that is constantly being refined through WhatsApp voice notes between him and Mitchell, Aphelele’s mom says with a smile.

Mitchell says the project has been phenomenal. The child at heart helped an awesome kid and made a new friend. But he’s also been put in touch with experts from a range of disciplines since then, who are now collaborating with e-Nable to improve prosthetics and distribute more of them.

For Aphelele, the prosthetic and the experience has turned a relatively shy kid into a hero, full of charisma and confidence. Picking up objects such as a kettle, he demonstrates how he now cradles it carefully in the crook of his new arm. 

“I can make Milo,” he says triumphantly. “But you know,” he adds with a conspiratorial wink, “you can also make it in the microwave. You just mix it with milk and put it in. It’s easy!”

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.