In 2011, Higher Gear worked with World Bicycle Relief to bring you the first Wrigley Field Road Tour. In 2013, we introduced you to WBR’s Africa Rides program by way of the Higney family. We revisited Africa Rides again with Claire Geiger and Ruth-Anne Renaud. So you’re no stranger to the life-changing work that WBR does and the amazing opportunity they offer to witness the Power of Bicycles in action through fields trip to Zambia.
Mary Beth Johnson wasn’t a stranger, either. Having worked with WBR for the past year, she was well versed in the company’s mission. She’s worked alongside co-workers who had shared their stories about visiting Zambia. Even before her time with WBR, she had volunteered in Tanzania, so was already familiar with the harsh conditions and extreme levels of poverty in Africa.
So, when Mary Beth headed out with WBR to embark on a nine-day journey in Zambia in October, her eyes were already open. But it’s sort of like electricity: we’re all at some level aware of it, but to receive even a mild shock is a reminder of its immense power.
In Zambia, Mary Beth, along with a group of twelve others, met AIDS patients; she met widows and orphaned children living in a shelter; she met students, their families and their guardians; she met healthcare workers and their remote patients; and she met entrepreneurs whose ability to bring their wares to market had been drastically changed through The Power of Bicycles.
Mary Beth summarizes the experience: “We got to see firsthand how a bicycle can take you from Point A to Point B, how a bicycle can contribute to the growth of a business, how it can help children to get to school to get an education and how healthcare workers can increase the number of patients they see in a day. But it’s not just about the numbers.” The Power of Bicycles is more than the distances, the number of patients or products. It’s about the people. “An entire community can change with just one bicycle.”
As part of their journey, the group visited WBR’s warehouse where they met the mechanics who are trained to build and repair the mighty Buffalo Bike. With the mechanics’ assistance, Mary Beth built a Buffalo Bicycle, which she found surprisingly easy to assemble. “It’s such a solid tool with a simple and intelligent design. There’s thought and intention behind every part of it.”
Also while at the warehouse, she and the others learned more about the Bicycle Education Empowerment Program (BEEP), the aspect of WBR that gets the Buffalo Bicycles into the hands of school-aged children. The following day, the group would see BEEP in action by bearing witness to and participating in the distribution day ceremonies at Lishiko Primary School in rural Kafue.
Following the ceremony, their group visited the home of Betty, one of the students who received a Buffalo Bicycle that day. Betty’s trip home from school is 6.4km, a distance that takes her 2.5 hours by foot. With her Buffalo Bicycle, her commute will now take her under an hour. To get just a taste of how The Power of Bicycles would transform Betty’s life, Mary Beth and the others did a fraction of the trek on foot and an equal distance by bike.
The bike, again: a simple, yet powerful tool. “It’s not just about the distance and the time saved. The power was riding alongside Betty and seeing her smile. Witnessing the joy of riding, of feeling empowered, of feeling confident, braver and stronger.” Mary Beth laughs, “Betty really took off on her bike!”
Mary Beth tells us: “What makes this trip so unique is that you’re really lucky to have these intimate experiences. To be invited into a student’s home is a private, intimate experience. It’s special. It’s really powerful having the opportunity to connect on this more human level.”
Of that visit, Yann Bertaud, who was also on this journey with Mary Beth, wrote on his blog:
“[Betty’s] father showed us the inside of their home. It was sparse, they had a bedroom and a ‘living room’ with a few chairs and a couch they must have salvaged from somewhere. He showed us a car battery by the wall that gets charged during the day by small solar panel and which powers a 12″ fluorescent tube hanging from the ceiling. That is their only source of light at night… Also, they do not have running water, they have to walk 45 minutes down the hill to get water in buckets. Obviously, they use water sparingly. I believe they had a small outhouse somewhere away from the house. Seeing this made me realize how lucky we are, we have so much stuff and we take running water and electricity for granted. I also realized that I/we long for having things, like the latest iPhone or that new car or that 60″ tv because that 42″ tv is not good enough. It has made me reevaluate my thought processes and what I think I ‘need.’”
Mary Beth points out the challenge of such an experience. “How do you keep something like that close to your heart and your mind after you get back? It’s easy to get caught up in routine, especially at this time of year, with the holiday stress and all that we allow ourselves to get so worked up over.”
Her experience in Zambia left Mary Beth “overwhelmed with joy, sadness and hope.” It’s in revisiting her moments there – by looking at pictures and sharing her story – that Mary Beth keeps her focus on the joy and hope.
Part of what stuck with her was the group’s response. “In the evening, we’d come back to the lodge. All these different personalities, from all over the world. There were tears, hugs, laughter and a lot of reflection on what we saw.” The group wasn’t required to gather each night, but that’s how they chose to process their experience.
The connection the group had was a powerful way to process the connections they were making each day. Those small, intimate connections made by “riding alongside” someone, by a private invitation into the home of someone living in a world so completely foreign to us and by intimate conversations with those who began as strangers. The experience highlighted the importance of human connection, how each connection we make has the power to bring us joy and hope. Like a spark of electricity, that power is mighty. It is, indeed, the power to change the world.
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