What’s a bicycle to you? A child’s toy? A way to burn off some calories? Something to do tricks on? In Africa, it’s a lot more than that.
For me, searching the Web is a lot like travel. I never know where it’s going to take me or what it’s going to teach me.
A couple of weeks ago, a small item on Twitter turned up from a young European cyclist who’s planning a 3,500-mile solo bicycle tour of Africa.
My first reflexive, clichéd thought: He’s nuts. But it made me curious.
So I decided to see what I could find about cycling on the Mother Continent.
Two weeks later, I’m still getting an eduction. It turns out that bicycles are becoming a factor in Africa — not merely for sport or travel, but in its very development, and in ways I never would’ve guessed.
All over sub-Saharan Africa,
For years, individuals and charitable groups have been collecting old bikes and shipping them to Africa to be donated to individuals, families, entire communities. But what's going on now has gone far beyond that.
They're teaching people how to ride. They're teaching bike maintenance and mechanics, even how to manufacture their own bikes. In rural areas, bikes are being used for everything from cargo carriers to ambulances.
Then there’s Craig Calfee of Santa Cruz, CA, a serious bike designer who not only creates bikes out of bamboo, but actually has spent time teaching people in Ghana how to build them themselves.
As you’ll see in subsequent blog posts, they’re doing it now in Zambia, as well.
Am I crazy? Probably. But Calfee is totally serious — and more to the point, so are his bikes.
To understand why is this a big deal, you need to either spend some time in Africa, or just use your imagination.
Imagine that the only water available in your household for the day’s cooking, drinking or any other purpose is in a well two miles from your house. Now imagine that you are the one who will have to walk to that well, pump the water into your bucket or 5-gallon can, and carry it back.
Several times a day, every day of your life.
Imagine that the old joke about having to walk for miles just to get to school every day is no joke at all.
Imagine needing to move 50-pound sacks of rice or cement or some other heavy load, the kind for which we’d simply use a pickup truck. Only you don’t have a pickup and can’t afford one.
This is daily reality for a lot of people in the world, and especially in Africa.
A bike doesn’t need perfect roads, or even paved roads. It doesn’t need expensive gasoline. Unlike the donkey that so many people up and down the Mother Continent still use to haul goods, it doesn’t need to be fed.
And as you can see in the video above, you can carry incredible loads with it.
My admittedly cursory search of the Web turned up 17 different organizations around the United States devoted to getting Africans up and rolling on bikes. I don’t doubt for a minute that there are more:
Bikes for Africa
Bikes not Bombs
Bicycles for Humanity
Bicycles Against Poverty
Bikes for Rwanda
Bikes for the World
Cycling Out of Poverty
Mike’s Bikes Foundation
Village Bicycle Project
Wheels to Africa
It’s hardly an all-American effort, either. I found similar groups in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Hungary, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
Most important of all, though, may be the homegrown cycling groups, everything from school groups an competitive racing clubs to cycling activist organizations springing up across the Mother Continent.
To them, this is not just recreation. This is practical, sustainable and potentially life-changing transportation.
Not everyone in Africa views bicycles in such a glowing light, as The Economist magazine pointed out a few years back:
“Cycling enthusiasts blame the sweltering heat, potholes, and the dumping of Chinese bikes unsuitable for glutinous dirt roads for the ascendancy of belching minivans, even over short distances…Indeed, Africans tend to turn their back on bikes as soon as they can afford anything with an engine.”
From one African country to another, good roads, knowledge of safe cycling, use of safety gear like helmets and reflectors are all hit-and-miss (which may well be the worst choice of words ever associated with cycling).
And driver indifference to the presence and safety of riders may be worse in Africa than it is in the United States — if that’s possible.
What’s more, bicycles tend to be viewed with indifference by African government leaders and policymakers who look to the developed world for inspiration in planning transportation — and see nothing but large highways and big cars.
But even The Economist concludes that, despite all the shortcomings and stumbling blocks, “with low purchase and running costs, the humble bike could be a key to mobilising rural Africans and unclogging the cities.”
Maybe that young Dutch cyclist is on to something. Little by little, the Mother Continent is getting her roll on — and not just as practical, efficient transportation.
Cycling for sport, and for travel, also is catching on in Africa.
And that’s next.
NOTE: The listing of the above organizations does not represent any kind of endorsement by IBIT or me. I list them here solely as a research aid for anyone interested. As always, do your homework on these outfits before you commit any of your precious time, or even more precious money.
If anyone would like a listing of cycling clubs or advocacy groups in Africa, please leave me a comment on this blog. And if any of these outfits ask how you heard about them, be sure to tell them about IBIT!
ALSO CHECK OUT:
CYCLING: Africa gets her roll on, Part 2
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