Bandha Bikes Site Visit – Uganda
Two weeks in Uganda was a short amount of time to try to accomplish so much. Time takes on a different shape there, moving with the flow of the natural day. Even though the days flew by, the overall pace of life was slower. Everything is on African time – about two hours late on average – and people operate in a more relaxed manner. They speak gently and thoughtfully, unless they’re arguing, in which case all bets are off. They saunter rather than speed-walk, and take the time to formally greet one other before jumping into business. It’s a lifestyle that inherently counters my typical behavior, and has taught me patience and the art of enjoying life in the present.
I was in Uganda representing Vort Port International’s (VPI) Bandha (bamboo in Lugandan) Bicycle Project, which works to train local villagers how to build, maintain, and sell the bamboo bicycles to people in and around Uganda. The team’s project director, Song Nguyen, had performed the first site visit last June, and I was there performing a follow up visit to solidify pilot locations, answer questions for the project, and continue to gain feedback. Bamboo is an abundant, locally-grown, and strong resource that can replace traditional steel bicycle frames. Most of these steel bicycles are secondhand from China or Japan, and are sold at relatively high costs compared to the average Ugandan income. Because of this, the local economy for these bicycles has limited room for growth, and many people, especially the vulnerable and needy, don’t have access to a much-needed form of transportation (for the majority of Ugandans, walking is their sole means of transportation.) Because of the lower material costs associated with frame construction, bamboo bicycles will sell for less than that of steel bikes. This will increase access to the product and, enables children to get to school , families to fetch water more conveniently, and increases commerce to increase by using the bicycles to transport goods, thereby empowering communities to succeed. Additionally, training and hiring Ugandans to build, sell, and grow the project will stimulate the local economy and promote Ugandan-made goods that can be sold and even exported, rather than relying on the costly and unreliable second-hand import market. Being able to talk to villagers, women, and students around Uganda about this project has been exciting and further strengthened my enthusiasm for Bandha Bicycles’ vision.
My first stop in Uganda was the village of Lukaya in the Kalungu District, half way between the capital, Kampala, and the western border of Uganda. There, I met with George, the director of Tree of Life Ministries, and several headmasters of Mustard Seed Academy, an incredible boarding school founded by Elaine and Joe Griswold, two amazing people who VPI is fortunate to be partnering with. This school offers not only education, but also housing to orphans and other students in need. I visited the students and the community, as well as local sites for bamboo sources, and discussed the project with local leaders. Sean, a volunteer contractor for the school, was extremely helpful and hospitable, and shared some of the challenges and rewards of working in this community with me.
Visiting the Mustard School was an amazing experience. I was greeted by the students announcing “you are most welcome,” in unison when I walked into each classroom. They then showed me some of their notes, all written in great detail — because of the lack of textbook availability for the students, their notes essentially were their textbooks. There was a wide age range of students–from 13 year olds learning advanced geometry and trigonometry all the way to three year olds writing short sentences. It was hard to believe that until the school was founded a few years ago, many of these kids were living on the street. They were bright and curious, and their spirits matched their intellect.
I even had the opportunity to teach a mini-course to the secondary (high school) students who will eventually be trained through their vocational and service learning course on how to build the bamboo bicycles. When I asked them if they believed that bamboo could be used as a bicycle frame, they all replied (again in unison), “Yes, Ms. Walker”. One of the main challenges that the team has faced is convincing Ugandans that bamboo can, in fact, be a suitable substitute for steel or other bicycle frame materials. To have the students all agree that they do believe that bamboo could be used was music to my ears. They all seemed eager to learn new skills — in response to the question of who would like to eventually be a bike builder, every single child raised their hand in the room. Perhaps it was just the overall excitement of the day, or the presence of a foreigner, but I genuinely felt that the students wanted to participate. Overall, I was beyond impressed by the caliber of students studying here, as well as the quality of their work.
After leaving Lukaya, I then made my way to Jinja, a beautiful, quaint, and bustling town where I was based for the remainder of the trip. There, I first met with Sharon, the director of VPI’s partner organization Arise and Shine Uganda, to go over the questions I reviewed with all of the Ugandan partner organizations. We then took a day-long journey toward Kibuye, the village where she is from and now works, to discuss the project. We stopped at a bamboo farm and a couple village centers along the way to speak with local communities about the progress of the project, gain feedback, answer questions, and discuss next steps. People had insightful questions and concerns.
Will the bicycles be able to handle the conditions in Uganda? How can I be assured that you’re going to come back? When will you be back? These communities have worked with previous development organizations that came in to do some work, or make false promises, and then deserted them. While people were excited, they seemed skeptical of development in general. Still, I sensed that they trusted us more than other organizations, because when we said that we’d come back, we kept our word.
The following day, I went to meet with Kats and the members of Nansana Children’s Center (NCC) in Kampala, another partner
organization. NCC works with youth and single mothers in Kampala linking single mothers with educational resources and materials for thier children and linking families with other community resources so they can thrive, regardless of income. They currently have a small primary school program at their facility and are looking to eventually build a larger school, as well as other buildings to support their work. After introducing the Bandha Bikes program to Kats and the other board members, I spoke with the single mothers that are part of the NCC program. They were very keen to know what it would take to be part of the Bandha Bikes project.
We also ran through sample lesson plans on resource mobilization and gender equality which would be offered to participants of the program along with the technical bicycle workshops. The lesson plans were well received, but their perception of gender equality startled me because of the stark cultural differences. However, after running through a high-level version of the lesson plan, the group responded very positively to the class, saying that it was applicable and opened their eyes. I have the Bandha Bikes team to thank for their thoughtfulness in developing the lesson. Although I was uncomfortable in the situation, the lesson gave useful statistics and posed intriguing questions that challenged traditional thinking. Overall, the project aims to not only provide bicycles, but help educate on some of the underlying social issues and provide some context to address these issues so that the bicycles can help empower women and girls in the community.
The next day, I met with three wonderful individuals – Amos, Moses, and Brian – all of whom have been doing social work with the local community and teaching villagers how to make jewelry out of bamboo. They showed me how their work is already making a difference in the villagers’ lives, and that the community members they work with highly respect them. I arrived by boda boda (riding on the back of a motorcycle) to Lwanda, and was happily received by a large group of women yipping and yelping sounds of joy. I was told that these sounds reflect their excitement and joy for the project’s presence. We talked for a bit, and then set off to round up more people for a larger meeting at the center meeting place dubbed “the Office.” Approximately 40 villagers, primarily women, attended,
and they were attentive and asked great questions that reflected more of their concerns about development and whether there was assurance that we’d be back. Again, I could not promise anything but explained that the team was there a year ago and promised to return, and we had. After this, they seemed to open up more and responded with more yips of joy. I couldn’t help but smile when looking into their eyes — the happiness of hope lit up their faces. They got a kick out of watching the Bandha Bikes video that the media team assembled, and couldn’t wait for the bike to be in their communities.
2) If not, why? “They are too expensive.”
3) How would that help your lives? “They would provide increased access to health care, water, school, and the ability to perform jobs that would improve our livelihoods.”
With this overwhelming agreement about the potential and demand for bamboo bicycles, it is now our turn to do our best to meet this demand, and work with our amazing partners in Uganda to provide this simple, but life-changing technology.
For more information on the Banda Bikes project click here.
Written by Merry Walker, Co-founder and Executive Director of Vort Port International