by Jennifer Grant
The night before Kathy and I flew to Zambia, our friend James joined us for a farewell dinner. We ate Thai take-out, channeled Karen Blixen, (“I had a farm in Africa…”) and sporadically sung snippets of “Eye of the Tiger,” of all things.
Kathy and I were punchy. We are both mothers of four and had spent hours during the previous weeks carefully arranging schedules, carpools, and uncountable details.
Despite being in the company of two of my best friends, I was elsewhere for much of the evening. Crumpled to-do lists still swam in my mind, making it nearly impossible for me to be truly present; I wasn’t truly present.
That soon changed. Over the next two weeks, my sense of my place in the world, as well as my perspective about how to address global poverty, were recalibrated. And I would never see bicycles the same way again.
Do you remember your first bike? I loved mine. It was Popsicle-pink with a flowered “banana” seat and monkey handlebars. I coasted down what we call “hills” here in my flat Midwestern town, felt the gravel shoot up from the path as I sped home from school, and went “no handed” for a few precious seconds, my arms raised into the air.
In Zambia – as in other resource-poor places around the world – bicycles are more than a happy diversion. They save lives and help to draw whole communities up out of poverty. Zambia is one of the poorest countries on earth. One in seven adults lives with HIV; life expectancy is 39 years – a birthday my friend and I had already celebrated.
The incidence of gender-based violence is high. When girls walk long distances to school, too often they are victims of rape. There is a traditional belief in Zambia that when an HIV-positive man has sexual intercourse with a virgin, the virus leaves his body. This tragic myth increases the pervasiveness of rape and HIV in the country.
World Bicycle Relief partners with World Vision and others to provide students and HIV caregivers with bicycles. More than 23,000 caregivers have received bicycles and the goal of WBR’s Bicycle Education Empowerment Program (BEEP) is to provide 50,000 students with bikes designed specifically for the Zambian landscape. In 2010, nearly 6,000 bicycles were distributed to students.
Recognizing the special dangers girls face as they walk to school, Zambian girls receive 70% of the bikes from WBR. A recent WBR report notes that when girls own bicycles, school attendance improves greatly – the statistic jumps from 66% to 89%.
For adults, bicycles save time and increase carrying capacity, allowing people to transport crops and dairy products to market while they are fresh.
Now, sometimes, nearly a year after my trip to Zambia, I am elsewhere again. Not crunched in a flurry of to-do lists, but lost in my imagination. I see those bumpy, dirt roads. I hear women singing. I see the expanse of blue, sky and trees as far as I can see. And I remember seeing a girl, her white blouse and plaid skirt almost a blur, riding home from school on a hot afternoon.
Journalist Jennifer Grant’s memoir “Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter” will be published in summer 2011 by Thomas Nelson publishers. Find her online at jennifergrant.com.
To learn more about World Bicycle Relief’s efforts in Zambia, visit http://www.worldbicyclerelief.org/