Change Begins with a Bike

Being faced with a choice between sending your daughter to school, or receiving the gift of a cow, isn’t a problem that many in the UK are faced with.

But it’s a very real challenge for poor farming families in Eastern Uganda.

And I was surprised – to say the least – that a solution for their dilemma could be a bicycle!

But that was the message from an interesting recent Zoom gathering that I was invited to share. Organised by our Methodist international aid organisation ‘All We Can’ (AWC), I listened to Najgiba and Joy talk about the difference that I and other AWC donors are making to their lives, and the lives of such families in Uganda.

When we talk about aid to poorer countries most of us think about food aid and medical supplies, temporary shelters and so on – things needed in the wake of some natural or climate-change induced disaster. All We Can does contribute to emergency situations when needed, but most of its work is more low-key, small-scale, very community-focussed, and always in partnership with and under the direction of local people who have experienced the situation first-hand and thus really know what will help them best.

Najgiba and Joy are community leaders of the First African Bicycle Information Organisation (FABIO), and they talked to us of their partnership with AWC in the ‘Change Begins with a Bike’ scheme. Sugarcane farming is all that is available to many families in their locality and many boys have to contribute to that work and girls to the domestic chores of cooking, bringing up younger children, and fetching and carrying water and firewood for cooking. With schools as much as 2 hours walk from home, getting an education as well as working for the family becomes impossible. FABIO buys up second-hand bicycles, provides workshops where they are renovated, and donates them to villages where the village elders determine who needs them most.

At first sight, that doesn’t suggest it can be doing a lot of good, and what happens when the bikes finally get beyond repair, or are stolen? Najgiba and Joy, with the help of a short video, showed us that there is much more benefit than appears at first. Firstly, the whole village owns the bike, and at least one young man has to have been trained (and is paid) to keep it in good repair; the bike can be used to fetch water for the whole village, or take produce to market to be sold, generating a fund for improvements (including buying an additional bike) agreed by everyone. The bike can be used for women to go to antenatal clinics which reduces the number of neonatal deaths – some villages construct trailers that turn the bikes into ambulances! It’s in everyone’s interest that the bike is kept safe and well-maintained.

And the schoolgirls and the cows? There has been a high incidence of teenage pregnancies amongst unmarried girls – particularly at risk during those long walks to and from school. In the past, it was usual for these girls to drop out of school, losing the opportunity that education can bring. In other cases poor families might be offered a cow or a goat in exchange for a marriageable young girl, and be tempted by the immediate relief from poverty, and one less mouth to feed! But it isn’t a long-term solution, especially as world-wide sugar prices fall rapidly.

Access to a bicycle can mean the difference between everyone subsisting on just enough, or having a little money over in the village to purchase more land, invest in different crops, or build their own well; to take their produce to larger, more distant, markets to obtain better prices, to send a bright student for further education. And because all the village is involved in setting the conditions for the use of the bike, they can ensure that the better outcomes are shared across the village population.

I’ve always been impressed by the principles behind ‘All We Can’ (perhaps still more familiar to many of us under its former name – the Methodist Relief and Development Fund). But hearing from the Ugandan partners in Change Begins with a Bike, really brought home to me how much better it is to provide small amounts of funding and expertise to local communities to further schemes that they know can work best for them. Joy and Najgiba referred over and over again to the difference made by working in partnership with a charity that doesn’t set their own conditions for how their money is spent, but agrees the rules in negotiation with those who are to be benefitted. It was clear that All We Can was making a big difference!

You can find out more about the First African Bicycle Information Organisation by going to fabio.or.ug and about All We Can at www.allwecan.org.uk


First published on: 22nd April 2021