A hundred wooden bicycles clattered across Rwanda's rocky hillsides in September, racing toward Karongi's soccer stadium. Rolling to the finish line, the competitors were greeted by 3,000 cheering fans and speakers blaring the '80s anthem 'Flashdance . . . What a Feeling.' It was a scene unimaginable 12 years ago, when screams and gunfire echoed across the town's arena as thousands were slaughtered in the genocidal fervor that eventually claimed 800,000 Rwandans' lives.
The race 'was a celebration, wiping away the memory of what happened in the stadium,' said Benjo Clark, a volunteer with Project Rwanda, a U.S. nonprofit promoting the bike 'as a tool and symbol of hope' by organizing events like the first Wooden Bike Classic, which included the country's first mountain bike race.
Founded in early 2006, the Rwanda- and California-based group hopes to boost the country's image and economy by showing outsiders-especially mountain bikers-that the country is an attractive place to visit and do business. The group isn't just touting a destination, however. Volunteers like Clark are also working on building a bicycle repair network to support Rwandans, particularly farmers, who rely on decrepit bikes to haul their harvests to market.
Back at his community bike repair shop in Minneapolis, Clark flips open his laptop and pulls up a picture of a typical Rwandan bike shop. It's the antithesis of the high-ceilinged, brick-floored building we're sitting in, where a dozen bike frames and wheels hang neatly from the ceiling. The four-by-six-foot shop on the screen is stocked to the roof with beat-up components-hubs, spokes, tubes, bike locks, and pedals. The dirt floor is buried in supplies.
Clark is taking the principles he promotes in the States-encouraging cyclists to repair their own bikes and pass on their skills-through free maintenance workshops in Rwanda. It's a sustainable approach, he emphasizes, that will save Rwandans money and resources.
It will take more than a few patch-ups to revolutionize Rwanda's bicycles, though. 'We saw one guy . . . who was hauling 200 pounds of water on a bicycle that was all rewelded,' says Project Rwanda co-founder Gary Boulanger, who first traveled to the country with partner Tom Ritchey in 2005. 'The guy was barefoot, and one of his pedals was missing-it was just a steel rod.' Most bikes they encountered also lacked brakes-a necessity in 'the Land of a Thousand Hills.'
So Ritchey, in the same Woodside, California, garage where he conceived the mountain bike three decades ago, is retooling his classic design into a heavy-duty trailer that can haul 300-pound loads on an extended rear rack. It's ideal for Rwanda's 500,000 coffee farmers, whose product loses freshness (and value) with every minute spent pushing bicycles precariously stacked with coffee cherries to market. Ritchey hopes the bike can be distributed, through the help of several American groups working in the country, to 1,000 Rwandans by early 2007, in time for the coffee-harvesting season.
After that, the folks at Project Rwanda hope to get rolling on another key goal: establishing a Rwandan Olympic team to compete in 2008. 'We hope to see them come in and just kick butt,' Clark said.
To learn more about Project Rwanda, visit www.projectrwanda.org.