On Our Bikes BY Grace and Jason

Planning this trip began with Grace’s year in Otjikondo, after which we spent 5 years looking for a chance and reason to live and work in Africa together. In 2005 we learned of a bicycle recycling charity, Re-Cycle, based in Colchester, the aims of which were threefold. First, to prevent bikes from entering the waste system by accepting public donations of unwanted cycles and also working with council led canal clearing projects to reclaim dumped bikes. Re-Cycle then repair and restore the cycles in their own workshop facilities and in liaison with young offenders institutes where the bicycle restoration projects can contribute to a vocational skills training program. The refurbished bikes are then shipped to Africa, to community, charitable projects in the hope that the bicycle can provide sustainable transport opportunities for all kinds of development. This might include expanding the reach of health care practitioners in rural villages and enabling children, who would otherwise live too far from school to walk the daily commute, to access education by cutting their journey time. Bikes in these rural communities, and in larger townships too, can provide opportunities for all kinds of trade and transport: generators, water, firewood, and food crops can all be accessed more easily by bike.

In London we volunteered to establish a small sister project of Re-Cycle: Grease Fingers. With no funding to send the bikes overseas Grease Fingers focused on local vocational skills training and utilizing reclaimed bike parts for community art projects in and around Lambeth. In 2007 we were approached by a funder in Cambridge to put together a shipment of bikes for an NGO – the Ezetela Memorial Foundation – in Ghana. Re-Cycle advised that we contact the Royal Mail to give them a base in London to which they could donate their out-of-service Pashley, load-bearing frames. Two hundred of these, together with public bike donations, eight potters’ wheels and hundreds of books, were packed into a 40-foot container for Ezetela.

Jason won the ISA Travel Award in 2008 to fund a visit to the project in Ghana. From this trip we identified a real need for more hands-on follow up work and continued evaluation with the bicycle recipients of both Grease Fingers and Re-Cycle. Whilst several people in the wider community surrounding Ezetela were benefitting hugely from the use of the bicycles we felt a continuation of our other charitable aims; vocational skills training and increased awareness in responsible waste management practices, could be equally beneficial to these partner projects. One of the main aims of Ezetela is to improve access to education and to support free vocational training for young people in their community. Early this year the Ezetela Memorial Home in Dodowa, the Greater Accra Region, confirmed that they’d like to host us as volunteers to continue their work with bicycles; we began packing up our lives in London and researching the possibilities of a bicycle workshop and mechanics’ training centre in Ghana.

Our plan is to build and establish the Ezetela Bicycle Workshop wherein Jason will guide and train apprentices to unleash and nurture the potential we know the bike to hold. At the moment there is no bicycle workshop facility in Dodowa and the post bikes that we sent from Grease Fingers have earned themselves an excellent reputation throughout the township. We hope to harness the enthusiasm these bikes have generated to enable both a good, long-lasting working relationship between Ezetela and Re-Cycle through which more bikes can be distributed across the Greater Accra Region and to leave behind a sustainable model of the work Ezetela can achieve for the young people of Dodowa.

We’re moving to Ghana via as much of West Africa as we can fit into two months and a tight budget. August was full of as much family time and bag stuffing as much as we could squeeze into one month and two backpacks! September began with Tears and Beers – farewell to London and our urban family. On the fourth we fly to Malaga to get on a truck that will take us, for five weeks, overland to Dakar, Senegal.

This overland trip and then the Ezetela project has been in the planning for such a long time we can hardly believe we’re setting off now. The journey will no doubt be incredible, through Morocco, Western Sahara, and Mauritania to Senegal and then on our own (if we can!) across to Mali and down to Ghana via Burkina Faso. The placement which follows will be an even bigger adventure. We’ll be living with the Director of Ezetela in his family home with his wife and two sons: we’re the first volunteers the project has ever hosted! It’s the best and worst characteristic of the project, the most daunting and yet the most exciting thing. The whole idea and experience is inevitably brand new for us, lots of our motivation comes from the desire and opportunity to immerse ourselves in a new culture. Ezetela are taking an equally big risk and committing themselves to 12 months of sharing their life and work with strangers, for the first time(!), by inviting us to create this project in Dodowa.

Whatever we build and achieve has the potential to roll out across Ghana and West Africa as we try to join up various Re-Cycle recipient projects to pool information and resources. It has potential to begin a reputation for Ezetela vocational training programmes which will attract future funders and volunteers alike. But if we get it wrong… we don’t want to think about what wrong might be! We might not teach enough in a year to hand the project over, what if it takes Ghana Maybe Time in the tropical sunshine! We’re excited about the massive learning curve ahead. With the support of our friends and family, Hazel’s Footprints and Re-Cycle, we’re going to join up some bikes with Ghanaian ambition and a lot of good will: fingers crossed! And if (a big if…) we pull it off, maybe one day someone will offer us paid employment where we can start each day picking mangoes for breakfast… in the meanwhile we’ll volunteer for fruit.  We hope they’re ready, we hope we’re ready: we can’t wait!