A carpenter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, works so handily with tools that you’d never guess he made his stylish tables and chairs with his feet.
He’s Sintayehu Tishale, and this 42-year-old woodworker has been hammering away as one of the area’s finest craftsmen for more than 20 years, according to Barcroft Media, a British news agency.
Tishale lost the use of his arms after being born with debilitating polio, but hasn’t let that stop him from defying the odds to become a successful provider for his wife, Guday Agazu, 38, and their five kids.
Despite his limited mobility, the skilled craftsman wields a hammer with incredible accuracy and can saw, chop, hammer, lathe wood and operate dangerous machinery with his dexterous feet, skills he taught himself as a child.
“When I was very young I used to like to work in a garden using my legs as hands,” he said. “Later I began to fix small things like stools and practiced sharpening knives with my feet. I made sure to practice as much as I could because I knew I had to make my feet work like hands.”
Tishale’s family didn’t notice their son’s handy talents. Seeing no other employment prospects for him, they taught him to beg on the streets.
“I was begging for many years by traveling from place to place,” Tishale said. “I traveled to Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan just to beg or to try to get something good for my life.”
Things changed 20 years ago when Tishale met his wife. The love of a good woman helped him turn his life around; he taught himself to read and write and dedicated his life to developing his woodworking skills.
Tishale now sticks out in his community more for his talent than for his appearance. But he’s had to make some adaptations. He rides a specially adapted bicycle to get around and must limit himself to making certain types of furniture.
“Because of my physical limitations I can only make small pieces of furniture, stools and chests of drawers,” he said. “I sit on the floor so that I can stretch my legs out as far as possible.
“Now, it’s second nature for me to use my feet as hands, but people are amazed when they see me doing it. They say, ‘How can you do that?’ But it’s just training.”
Tishale is proud that he never let his disability hinder him from being a productive member of society and wants others in his situation to realize they have value beyond their disabilities. He’s considered building a school.
“I have such a strong determination to achieve something, and not giving up has enabled me to overcome my disability,” he said. “I really believe that anyone who is partially disabled can be productive. People shouldn’t give up living life because they have lost some part of their body. As long as your mind works well you can train yourself to do almost anything.”
Tishale’s story is especially poignant to people like Tom Willis, who was born without any arms — just a small left hand with two fingers that aren’t very strong.
But that hasn’t stopped him from leading a successful life, first as a producer of educational films and currently as a motivational speakerwho has made it his goal to throw out the first ball at every Major League Baseball stadium — with his feet.
Willis says that even though he grew up in the U.S., where there are more opportunities for the disabled than in Ethiopia, his story and Tishale’s aren’t so different.
“Hard to believe, but my life could have travelled a similar path,” Willis told HuffPost Weird News. “But my parents did not give up on me and allow me to settle for being a ‘cripple.’ And I was fortunate to have access to education as well.”
Willis says he has other things in common with Tishale “other than the no arms thing.”
“If you go in my garage you’ll find power tools as well — table saw, drill press, etc. — I’m not the greatest, but I’ve built a few things in my day, too,” he said.
Willis says Tishale’s story does help raise awareness in countries like Ethiopia that a disability doesn’t mean a person has no value, but he adds it’s hard to overcome a misconception that is centuries old.
“The fact that this guy survived his upbringing and had the courage and tenacity to make something of himself is amazing,” Willis said of Tishale. “He could have kept on begging, but he knew he was a better person and worked to find his calling in life.”