Uganda: Wheels of hope

Water, food and medical care are the stuff of life - and they are often taken for granted. Not so in Uganda. RICHARD KISAMADU explains how bicycles can help these essential services reach rural people.

My country is Uganda, which Winston Churchill once called the ‘The Pearl of Africa'. It is a country that should be prosperous, with fertile soils and strong agricultural industries, and it is a beautiful country, from Lake Victoria, source of the Nile, to the Ruwenzori Mountains, one of the last homes of the mountain gorilla.

Yet the political history of Uganda has undermined this potential for prosperity. The killings and strife of the Idi Amin are over, but there is a lack of infrastructure, much poverty and AIDS.

This is not to say that we are a country without hope: quite the opposite. Africa is a place where every resource is used to the full in the most ingenious way, where every good thing that happens is greeted with real happiness. And one of the best things that can happen to many Ugandan families is a bicycle.

In Uganda, as in much of the developing world, the bicycle is much in demand for transport of goods and people over short distances. A bicycle can provide an income directly: it can take a worker to a place of work which might otherwise be too far away, or it can be used to offer transport services.

Bicycles also bring produce to market. By allowing a farmer to carry his harvest in perhaps one load of up to 200kg, and much faster and cheaper than by any other means, the bicycle can significantly improve the economic viability of small farmholdings. The farmer spends less time away from his farm, and the goods arrive fresher at the market.

Bicycle transport is the only option for most rural weddings: not only are the roads often very poor, but the cost of motorised transport, even for this special event, is prohibitive - the money needs to be spent on food, drink and festivities instead! Indeed, the bicycle has encouraged more couples to follow the African tradition of an ‘Official Introduction' before the wedding. Without a bicycle, the transport is just too slow and expensive in time off work - estimated at up to 50% of the total cost of the wedding.

Repair shops are everywhere. Frame repair, African-style, involves neither bottled gas or electric welding facilities are available outside big cities - and if they were, they would not be affordable. Instead, the frame is stripped and put on its side, and a charcoal furnace constructed around the broken joint. Rocks keep the heat in. A foot bellows is used to force air through the furnace, while the repairer feeds brazing rod into the joint. This system has been used by blacksmiths for many years for the repair and fabrication of many metal items, not just bicycles.

Women, in particular, benefit from the use of a bicycle. It usually falls to women to till the land, carry the harvest to market and to fetch drinking water. The loads - which are usually carried balanced on the head - can be huge: 20 litres of water in a jerry-can weighs over 20kg. Carrying such loads from an early age, often for two hours or more each day, frequently results in serious spinal injuries. Yet on a bicycle, twice this amount can be safely and easily carried in two jerry-cans strapped to the rear rack.

Freeing women from many hours a day walking and carrying allows them to spend that time productively: in many cases, to earn a supplementary income. In Uganda's traditionally male-dominated society, this is a powerful force for emancipation and self-respect for women. Earning an income empowers women to have a voice in decisions which affect them.

However, many Ugandans, and especially women, simply cannot afford a bicycle - many of them cannot even afford a decent pair of shoes!

To break this deadlock, in 1991 the Bicycle Sponsorship Project and Workshop was set up in Jinja, on the northern shores of Lake Victoria, in partnership with the German organisation Youth Aid East Africa. The Project is a charitable, non-governmental organisation. The main aim is to provide bicycles to the most needy in society, especially women, as a contribution to eradication of poverty in our country.

It works like this: sponsorship is sought in Uganda and beyond, particularly through our partner organisation in Germany. When a donation is made, it allows the charity to buy a bicycle - the machines are usually bought in bulk from India, unassembled - and are assembled in our workshop, near Jinja. This workshop also operates as a training centre, where, in particular, orphan children are taught the skills of cycle repair.

When the bicycle is ready, a recipient is nominated by one of the many local committees. To encourage direct contact between donor and recipient, the recipient writes a letter to the donor explaining how they will use the bicycle.

So far, the program has placed over 3000 bicycles in Uganda, of which more than half have gone to women. It is impossible to keep up with demand, and this means that the committees who decide on the award of the bikes have many difficult decisions to make.

Our work has attracted the attention of many other charities and people working to eradicate poverty in Uganda, and we work closely with local health and community groups. But we also found that people from further away, and even in other countries in Africa, were trying to find out more about cycling. The result was FABIO: the First African Bicycle Information Office.

As well as disseminating awareness about the strengths and advantages of the bicycle, we are also seeking information. Uganda is like many African countries in that there is a total lack of statistical material about the use of the bicycle: no-one knows how many bicycles there are, how many miles they cover and how they are used. We are also attempting to find out how long, on average, various sorts of bicycle withstand hard use in rural Uganda. We are also looking at affordable technologies to enhance the load-carrying capacity of cycles: robust trailers, load-carrying adaptations and the like.

Our main purpose is to raise the profile of cycling in Uganda and Africa, and to this purpose we organise cycle rallies and races, exhibitions, cycle maintenance seminars and road safety training for schools. At our headquarters we have a book and video library about cycling around the world, for any visitor to pop in and see a little of the world of bicycle culture which has reached out into our country.

The Bicycle Sponsorship project extends the range of community health workers by providing them with bicycles. This brings health care to the people: otherwise, anyone who falls ill is faced with many hours - often days - of travelling by foot to one of the relatively-few medical centres in the cities. If they are too ill to walk themselves, three or four friends or relatives must also leave their work and carry them to the hospital on a stretcher.

Health workers with bicycles can also bring vaccination programs to villages far from the main road, using insulated medicine boxes mounted on the back of the bike. Midwives, nurses treating AIDS patients, and physiotherapists (whose patients include many who have lost limbs to land-mines) can all reach their patients much more easily and, on the same visit, carry out valuable public health survey work.

Most local transport in Ugandan towns is by boda-boda: bikes with an upholstered rear carrier. Transport between cities, for those who can afford it, is by mini-van. Too expensive for the majority, they wait in the town square until it is time to depart. The roads in Uganda were mostly constructed over 40 years ago, and these vehicles, alongside government traffic and private cars, cause tremendous congestion. Often it's gridlock, and the traffic is stuck for hours, polluting the air and even obstructing cyclists. The majority of these vehicles are also very old, often third or fourth-hand, and many are highly polluting.

In spread-out rural areas children may have to travel many miles to school. Schools in Uganda are, like many other institutions, chronically under-resourced. The government has a programme of universal primary education, but this means that teachers have to cope with average class sizes of over 80 pupils. Transport is also a problem for the teachers, as the schools don't generally have any on-site accommodation - so in addition to marking work and planning lessons, the teacher may have to travel long distances every day. FABIO helps by providing bicycles for pupils and teachers, instructs pupils in road safety, trains women to be confident in their riding, and also to help shift public attitudes.

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