Cycling for Change

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.

UTNE
UTNE
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