This Christmas, spare a thought for the school students of Sub-Saharan Africa, whose summer months are a world away from what we enjoy here.
Imagine a daily commute to school that is hours on foot in searing heat, and fraught with personal danger. Imagine that journey as a young girl – knowing that sexual assault was a possibility every single day. The only escape is to get married – to a man old enough to be your father, who already has other wives. Unfathomable, isn’t it?
Sydney-based Dagmar Geiger has seen it first-hand. In her role as Development Director for World Bicycle Relief Australia, she has visited communities in Africa where the girls are most at risk.
“Here in Australia it’s a given that our daughters travel safely to school every day. In Sub-Saharan Africa it’s a much different story – it’s an uphill battle for women to get an education or receive proper healthcare when required,” says Dagmar.
Dagmar is leading the Aussie charge for World Bicycle Relief (WBR) – the not-for-profit organisation that has been working on changing these women’s lives since 2005. Since it started, World Bicycle Relief has distributed over 420 000 sturdy, all-terrain Buffalo Bicycles to developing communities around the world.
“The Buffalo Bicycle is not just any ordinary bike, it’s WBR’s secret weapon to achieve economic and cultural empowerment,” she says. “It really is a ‘super bike’. Incredibly sturdy, able to carry up to 100kg, puncture-resistant tyres – the Buffalo Bicycles can get through the toughest of African terrains. And in the process, it helps young women get an education.”
In 2017 alone, World Bicycle Relief distributed over 54,000 new Buffalo Bicycles. Ahead of Christmas 2018, Dagmar and the World Bicycle Relief team is putting the call out to all Aussie cyclists to make a Festive Season donation – however big or small – to change lives. Any amount helps:
“$35 gets a new set of wheels for a Buffalo Bicycle, $65 means a new toolkit for a Buffalo Bicycle mechanic in Africa, and only $195 will fund one whole Buffalo Bicycle,” says Dagmar. “And that includes shipping, assembly, and delivery to a village in Africa.”
A Buffalo Bicycle changes lives, and has a measurable impact.
“A school student or healthcare volunteer can cover four times the distance, and for every 16 kms, three hours of time is saved on a Buffalo Bicycle. Students who have access to a bike have increased school attendance by 28%, and their academic performance has improved by 59%,” says Dagmar. “WBR is helping girls living in poverty to access education. Crucially – education is the way for these girls to avoid child marriage, even at ages as young as 12 or 13.”
Going to school used to be a difficult task for Aleni. The walk, 6 to 7 km, took at least three hours each way. The river on her route sometimes became uncrossable.
“Some days, I wouldn’t go to school because I was very scared of meeting certain boys on the path. They may shout, throw stones, or stop me and make propositions,” said 16-year-old Aleni. “I could not avoid these boys.”
Aleni could only embark on her trek to school if she wasn’t too tired from the previous day’s journey.
“My friends used to discourage me about school. Some even mocked me – told me to drop out of school so that l should be like them. They would say, ‘Why are you bothering yourself like that, walking long distances to school? Why can’t you just leave and be like us?’”
But Aleni didn’t let that discourage her.
“After receiving the Buffalo Bicycle, my school life has changed so much. My performance has greatly improved. Now my journey to school is easier and faster,” says Aleni. “The same friends are admiring me now. Most of them have gone back to school, hoping to get a bicycle one day, just like me.”
If Aleni completes standard 8, she will be the first in her family – and the first from her community – to go to secondary school. Aleni’s trip to school remains difficult, taking almost 2 hours each way. But she no longer fears the boys along the road. And the saved time and effort leave her less exhausted in the mornings. Now, she can focus on dreams for the future: becoming a nurse.
Helping the wider community
It’s not just school students like Aleni who benefit from receiving a Buffalo Bicycle. Healthcare volunteers and farmers are the backbone of their communities, and with a bicycle they are able to travel five times faster than than if travelling on foot.
“Volunteer healthcare workers can increase the number of patients they see from an average of three to five a day, to 12 to 15,” says Dagmar. “Even women who are heavily pregnant often ride on the back of a Buffalo Bicycle to a medical centre, as the alternative is walking long distances. Farmers also benefit – on average, income increases by 25%, and milk deliveries can be made twice a day rather than once. The knock-on effect of the bicycles within these communities is absolutely profound.”
Dagmar cites the example of Esther, a 21-year-old healthcare worker working at the Kunenekude Health Center in Mwanza, Malawi.
“As a volunteer Community Healthcare Worker (CHW), Esther serves 108 clients in her community. She usually visits 10 clients a day, traveling up to 20 km to reach them and deliver various methods of contraception. Research shows that CHWs with bicycles reach 45% more patients, visit them more frequently and provide better, more consistent care.”
Esther sees the direct impact of her work.
“Teenage pregnancies are down – as are the number of girls dropping out of school after becoming mothers at a young age,” says Dagmar. “The ripple effect of World Bicycle Relief’s work is not just about changing individual lives, it’s changing entire communities for the better.”