World Bicycle Relief
David Bristow went ride-about with a bunch of Yanks, actually they were mostly from the Mid- West, in Zambia, and tamed a very rare kind of cycling beast. Photography by David Bristow.
Africa gets to people in many different ways, and people get Africa in about as many. I remember a French journo who couldn’t pack fast enough to leave. He told a long-winded story about how Scorpion nags Crocodile to take him across a swollen river. Crocodile relents and as they approach the bank Scorpion stings him in the eye. “Owwwwwwww! What was that for,” cries Crocodile. “That’s Africa,” shrugs Scorpion and scuttles off. Then there’s me, born here and will die here happy. Once I rode my mountain bike clear across South Africa and Lesotho for the sheer joy of it. Call me Gump [if you like]. So when I found out about a group calling themselves World Bicycle Relief and their trip Africa Rides, a two week trip delivering a “super bike” around Zambia, I signed in blood.
A call to Professor Google informed me WBR was based in Chicago and was the love child of FK Day and his wife Leah Missbach Day. FK is, with his brother Stan, co- founder of the high-tech bike parts manufacturer SRAM. FK and Leah started WBR after a post-tsunami trip to Sri Lanka convinced them that what the Third World needed most was a new kind of bicycle.
So next they went out to Africa where they and their team developed something they call a Buffalo Bike, for the shear big- heartedness of it. The idea was simple: a bicycle made with modern technology, super strong materials and love, could be a game changer in parts of Africa beset by troubles.
They had first discovered the need for a tough-as-buffalo-hide bike when in 2005 a tsunami had devastated parts of Sri Lanka. They rushed there to give what help they could, and found the local Asian made bikes could not cope with the heavy work required. And so was born an idea.
“All answers lie in the field,” Dave Nieswander, the African director of WBR who set up the project, would impress on us “buffalo soldiers”. They went to Africa, Kenya specifically, to develop and field test their baby. Then they chose Zambia as the most fertile place to roll them out. There are many ways a bicycle can help to break cycles of poverty and sickness, not with what Dave referred to as BSOs (bicycle shaped objects), but one made with high tech and love, one tough like a pachyderm.
For example, they have teamed up with World Vision/Rapids health care do-gooders to provide bikes to volunteer care givers who are now able to visit several Aids patients a day and deliver the meds vital for their lives. In pre-Buffalo days they might visit only one, and the people were dying rapidly. We rode about and saw peasant farmers who, a year before had been on death’s door, their families dying of Aids and starvation. Now they were healthy, happy and their fields were burgeoning.
We know intuitively the bicycle is the most efficient machine ever made, and some would add the most satisfying. WBR has got data from years of field testing, complete with pie charts and tables. They reckon a bike, even a beast weighing a hefty 23kg, can carry a person five times further than a person walking, and carry a load 10 times heavier. That’s a lot of extras in a place where most people walk, or ride bikes, to school, to work, or to the local clinic.
We rode dusty tracks to schools where we were greeted like liberators, with lots of singing, dancing and food. Lots. No Buffalo Bike is ever given away. Either an aid organization like World Vision buys them at cost and distributes them, or good people in Chicago participate in the annual Wrigley Field 100 miler and raise sponsorship to buy bikes. To date they have raised millions of dollars and bought tens of thousands Buffalo Bikes.
Several times each year WBR invites them on an event called Africa Rides to see how the programme rolls, and to hand out bikes they have sponsored. School pupils and their parents sign a contract, that they will achieve certain attendance levels or the bike is handed on. First on the list are girls, starting with those living furthest away from school. We visited homes and saw how this had liberated girls from the grinding drudgery of labour and discrimination ingrained in traditional societies.
We rode down tree-lined lanes to see small dairy farms. As the sun rose we saw farmers, mounted on Buff alo bikes loaded with milk urns weighing up to 90kg, make their ways to the local milk collection point. They bought their bikes with micro loans. People who previously had just one cow to feed the family had morphed into prosperous farmers with herds of both cows and Buffalo Bikes.
Each place we stopped we heard stories from the local people whose lives had been transformed by the humble bicycle. And we told them ours. We rode with songs in our hearts and we sang: “We are the Buff alo soldiers, (Come) from the heart of America …”
Africa got to us all, me the local yokel, as well as these big-hearted people from the heart of America. They ranged in age from Corinne, 10, to Nancy, substantially older but game as any young chicken. I reckoned it must be something in the water of Lake Michigan.
Much like a diamond, a Buff alo Bike is forever. Okay, it may need a replacement part or three over time. But the effects they have on the people who own them, and the many more who depend on them, will indeed last forever.