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Sunday, January 24, 2010

An African Story...

...in which bicycles are part of a mission to Uganda.

Riding in from the Seattle airport for my first bike tour ever, I met a lady who was going to go the distance: Seattle to Boston. This was only a warm-up, however. She would be riding from Cairo to Capetown just a few months after dipping her front wheel in the Atlantic. Riding through Africa. If you are thinking that I thought that was a great idea, you’d be oh so wrong. I was impressed, of course, but my thoughts ran along the lines of "Crazy. Absolutely crazy." And yet it happened. Me. On a bike. In Uganda. Here's the proof:

About riding, I once observed that there are no flats, only hills you never noticed until you rode them on a bike. The Boda-Boda drivers carried us from Tororo town to the home where we were staying a bit north of the city. There are two hills to negotiate. I could not have told you that before this ride. And this driver, shod only in a pair of flip-flops, was unfortunate enough to have to carry himself, his rebar-reinforced, single-speed bike and me up both of them.

Bicycles were a considerably more important part of this trip than this Boda-Boda ride, however. We sponsored bicycle repair clinics at the church and the school we have been visiting since 2006. The idea is to just show the concern of the church for the people who make do with so little. The church invited people from the surrounding neighborhood while at the school, it was repairs for bikes belonging to teachers, students and parents.

We start by buying a supply of parts. Tires come in front-rear pairs. We buy ball bearings by the gross. We also get grease, a seat (we already know of one rider without one), a few pedals and a lot of spokes.

Purchasing parts at one of the shops in Tororo

It would be an understatement to call the bikes here simply sturdy. They are used to carry heavy loads (recall the Boda-Boda experience) on bad roads. The front fork is given some help in the form of rebar reinforcement:

Sturdy by design, with a little help from rebar

And the rear rack is similarly supported:

Ready for a load of bananas, some furniture, or a single muzungu

Our goal was to help the church reach out to the neighborhood. Five mechanics (from the shade-tree shop we visited in 2008) were commissioned and neighbors were invited to bring their bikes to the church between 9 and noon.

Bike repair service project at the church

We watched for a while, but tried to emphasize that this was an outreach of the local congregation, part of the same church as we were. I don’t know how many people came, but the mechanics were busy and had to ride off on their own bikes from time-to-time to get more parts. They were very good about fixing or re-using parts, even though we would support their decision to use new parts if necessary. A fairly typical example was to put a rear tire on the front where it could live out the rest of its life in relative ease.

One of the sights that gratified us was that of a lady with some physical disabilities who brought in her hand-cranked, three-wheeled bike in obvious need of work.

Working on the three-wheeler

The owner of the bike is sitting patiently on the bench in the background in the picture. This seems a common characteristic in the people we met, the waiting patiently thing. No pushing or shoving to get to the "front of the line." Just wait for the mechanic to get to you, assess your bike and make the repairs he deems necessary. I was impressed.

As is so often the case in any situation, there was one exception, a man who wanted his bike fixed. Now. But even he quieted down when Pastor Israel explained the situation and assured him that whether first or last, his bike would be repaired.

It surprised me that we did not have to buy brake pads. Well, until I saw the brakes on one of the bikes.

Heavy duty brakes

Sorry for the fuzziness of the picture (brand new camera whose owner has not read the manual) but you can see the nearly 1 inch chunk of old auto tire now doing service as a brake pad.

In the afternoon, the bike clinic was repeated at the school.

Bikes at Aturukuku Primary School

And that's how I finally got to bike in Africa.


Anonymous said...

Too bad we can't use rebar to reinforce a lot of other things in our lives!

Spiffer said...

This is so cool! Bikes are such a central part of so many cultures. I wish our own country would become more bike friendly.
What a great project and a reminder that little things like this can make a huge difference in people's lives.