Ghana – The Village Bike Project

FishermanIn May of 2005 the author embarked to Ghana on a project to document, with video and photography, the work of The Village Bike Project…

450 used and recycled bicycles were loaded into a shipping container in Boston, and delivered to Ghana, where they would be unloaded by a team of Ghanaian bicycle importers named Samson and George. Most of the shipment will be sold off to various mechanics and bike shop owners around the country. Some will go to Burkina Faso. The remaining hundred or so bicycles will be set aside for use in workshops, run in conjunction with a small NGO, placing bicycles and bike tools in the hands of villagers.

Tools we’d take for granted are hard to come by here – Hammers and chisels are the Ghanaian equivalent of crank pullers, freewheel removers, headset wrenches and chain breakers. These useful tools are imported and sold at around 1/5th of the wholesale price to the workshop participants. The basic program is an eight-hour seminar in which applicants have pre-registered through their village. For the equivalent of between 15-30 USD (depending on the type of bike and the distance of the village from Accra), they get taught how to perform basic repairs, identify more technical problems before they become expensive bike spoilers and gain some basic riding tips. At the end of the day each participant gets a bike. Class size is limited to twenty and selection is left up to a committee in the village. A mandate of the program requires at least 20% of the participants to be women, and for all of the participants to truly need a bicycle to help them in their daily lives. In the villages we will be working with on this trip, there is no running water, poor sanitation, limited electricity and the average per capita income is less than a dollar a day. The bikes are sold rather than given, as having to buy the bike ensures that the person receiving it will actually care for the machine.

First day: Sleep did not come so much; more of a distant waiting for morning and the unknown, finally shutting down the racing brain at 3:30am. Muted Muslim prayer chants from a nearby mosque began at 4. Birdsong next, overtaken by the rhythmic swish of a broom in the street and the washing of unseen pots, pans and bedclothes. To cross the road from our side of the compound to the main house, one must first traverse an open sewer. Treading carefully, we note that the small shop Philo runs in front of the house is called ‘He Cares’. Somehow, this offers protection and comfort to our otherwise atheist sensibilities.

The sky alternates from grey to blue, and the air is heavy with the smells of smoky cooking, cooked carburetors, smoldering trash burn-off, and reactive streams of sewage flowing through trenches of various depth and width along the roadsides. Food is folly, a preponderance of prefab yogurt snacks and politely offered fishfoul soup, politely forced down with plenty of rice and a double dose of acidophilus. Somewhere across this swarming mass of city is the sea. Between here and that distant shore are buildings containing easier means of replenishing nutrients and communication connections. Our secondary mission will be to find them. Our immediate task is to roll out for George and Sammy’s shop on La Pas road.

Along this chaotic bramble of tarmac exists a reminiscent pattern, mirroring every other downtrodden municipality of the globe trying to bootstrap itself into second world status. Languages may vary and the tonal hue of sun-baked skin may range widely but some things are indelibly, inexorably, the same. To wit: mid-traffic hawking of toilet paper, chewing gum and bags of purified water proffered by young men clutching greasy wads of local currency. Row after row of unfinished cinderblock and rebar two story buildings, skirted at the ground floor by steel folding doors painted to reflect the goods and services provided in each cube. This, set back from the sealed road and buffered by a dirt and debris no-mans land dotted with delivery trucks, swerving drop taxis, hire phone stands, clapboard shanties plying warm sodas of unfamiliar name, the odd grill of corn or dried fish, fly-ridden rotting fruit, polyvinyl water cisterns, furniture on pallets and the occasional darting goat or clucking cock. Before each slab and steel cube sit half a dozen young men chatting over television entrails, copper fittings or a selection of cell phone faceplates.
Shop signs are hand lettered with misspelled aberrations of western pop references or out-right hieroglyphics, unrecognizable beneath layers of soot even to born and raised denizens of whichever Gotham we’re discussing. In this case, the Gotham in question is the Abeka region of Accra, but it might just as well be Lopburi, Managua, Georgestown or Guernavaca. Homogeny is the price paid by the mollified corners of the world trying to look and act like everything is okay; as seen on TV. Globalization is the race to the bottom of the barrel, or looking down the barrel of the long gun, or both. The shop-keepers all shod their feet the world over in closed-toe sandals of dubious leather and staff their stores with dusty kneed men in baggy denim shorts and bootleg sports team kit. It doesn’t matter if it’s Africa, Mexico or SE Asia, everyone somewhere needs a pink clip-on cover for last year’s Nokia nock-off.

In Accra, most residents speak at least three languages – their native village tongue (there are 60 languages spoken in Ghana), English and Twi – the accepted universal dialect of the big city. They are taught both in school and at home under strict discipline of the switch, the lash and the fist. This renders the concept of thinking for yourself a rather moot point. We are hosted by the Atsu family in their self-described ‘third class neighborhood’ of Fadema. The Atsu’s have two corner lots on either side of a rocky side street that intersects another dirt lane, leading out to the main paved road. On one side of their site is a corner store named ‘He Cares’ where a variety of canned and dry goods are sold, along with cold drinks.

Behind the store is the main Atsu house, occupied by Auntie Philo, husband D and six kids. Three are their kids, and three are being cared for and looked after by the Atsu’s. D. Atsu is a semi-retired carpenter who owns a taxi, which a local man living further up the street drives for him. Along with the shop, it’s a good source of revenue. Thanks to the Atsu’s, this end of the street is relatively level, always swept clean twice a day and the gutters kept clear and flowing. On our side of the compound are some other revenue streams – a block of four rental apartments and a kitchen/butchers shack leased by a local chop house (restaurant).
The businesses are all simple but are kept immaculately. There is a supporting cast of neighbors, tenants and friends who help run the shop, which is a meeting point for much of the community. In short, despite the relative lack of privacy the place is as jovial and exciting as any sit-com family home. We are welcome, safe and comfortable here. Philo rules the roost. She is mother, sister, proprietress, mayor, seer, healer, boss, friend, disciplinarian, taskmaster and community leader. To us, she is Auntie, her clan now our brothers and sisters.

All of the children, including the ones they’ve taken in, attend school and get high marks. They get extra tutoring after regular classes and all plan to go on to higher levels of education after exams. All are exceedingly polite, inquisitive and soft spoken, with smiles that are infectious. James, Adom, Papayo, Afie, Ma, Pa and Asegi treat us like family. The neighboring kids come and play with us regularly, curious about our backgammon games and life in California. The youngest, Moro, is at first afraid – he’s never seen white skin. We try the universal Polaroid icebreaker to no avail. His mom somehow digs up a white doll for him to play with and within a day he is our silent shadow. Moro dances with more rhythm than you’d think possible in a four year old. He says very little, but he observes everything and cautiously mimics what sticks in his head. TT becomes the pied piper to all kids under 12 when she produces our new icebreaker trick, soap bubbles. The delicate rainbow spheres fill the street and make everyone laugh.

The most common bike in Ghana is a one geared 1931 pig iron roadster called a Phoenix. From there up, you get the full range of bike types though in Accra the English Townie style and the 10-speed Varsity knock-off style make up most of the wheels on the road. Ahhh, the roads… Our street in Fadema, in cycling terms is what is known as a ‘rock garden’. Like all things daunting and difficult in these parts, folks just glide stoically along. The sealed streets provide a different type of sketchy line. To the right, an open sewer, to the left, in very close proximity, is your old friend traffic. In Accra there are few traffic lights, one lane each way, buses, tro-tro’ s, taxi’s and big trucks everywhere with little regard for pedaling maniacs. Within a frighteningly short distance the surface can go from asphalt to dirt to concrete to gravel with half a dozen off camber hairpin turns. It is hell on wheels. Oh, and the air is choking with dust, two-stroke oil-burn, carbon monoxide. A New York courier would think twice on some routes here.

At about 11am on our second Saturday in Africa we reach David Branigan’s house. David is the Peace Corpsman for this region, and he’s the main reason we’re here. It’s Branigan who contacted Peckham and applied for this area – Songorniya – to participate in the bike workshops program. Songorniya consists of four villages along a 6km stretch of dirt road, which itself sits a few klicks towards the sea; below the highway town of Sege. The four communities have two seasonally based means of income: farming and salt. The farming is a mix of produce, livestock and poultry. The salt comes from a large lagoon that sits just behind two of the villages. In the dry season, after the crops have been harvested, the communities shift attention to salt ponds along the lagoon’s banks.
Branigan’s been here almost three years and has made an obvious impact on the residents here. They call him ‘Akofi’, which loosely means first son of the community. He greets us quietly, a compact man built like a rock climber, barefoot and bare-chested, tending to a small vegetable plot. His house will be our quarters for the coming weeks; we respectfully enter a clean and utilitarian space. Unlike most of the village structures, the Peace Corps house is concrete with a tin roof and a compost toilet. The community built it specifically for aid volunteers and kindly caters to a more western sensibility about housing. There is a gas camp stove on a table with some shelves for supplies. A large surge protector and step-down rig allows David to run a small CD/Radio and when he needs to, a computer and printer. A small bookshelf occupies a corner with some hand drums. There is a bedroom, which David has graciously given up to us. We fold our bulky duffels and gear bags into the chamber as neatly as we can. Once we’re stowed, David shows us the two cisterns outside where we’ll pull our water, the wash stall with bucket for bathing and the compost crapper. There is also a storeroom where we put the bikes. The whole joint is basically the size of a one-bedroom pad.

We mount up the rigs and pedal around to the other villages, greeting elders in the two communities where the bulk of our work will be done. We also meet the four people whose lives’ we’ll be following for a few days before they participate in the workshops. Having made introductions and gotten – sorta – the lay of the land, we return to the house. David has done most of his work with a local youth drama troop, and some of its members congregate at his place every evening. These kids will become our assistants over the next weeks, helping us get around and get by. Branigan has a PC confab to attend elsewhere in Ghana and so we will be in the hands of this group of teens for a week while he is gone. Before he leaves the next day, there will be much to do. David has two meetings to participate in, one with the Water and Sanitation Committee and one with the drama troop. The WatSan group is the organization that formally applied for the bikes, and so they are now responsible for organizing a suitable facility to store the bikes, run the workshops, to provide some food and drink, etc. We end the evening in excited conversation, anticipating that the game is finally afoot.
We duly walk, and then pile into a local taxi with Seth and six other people. The car is a four door hatchback, patched with bailing wire, tape and spit. Who knows what keeps the engine running. We clatter over 4kms of dirt track before hitting the main paved road. 4kms after that we reach Sege and pile out. At this crossroads town along the main highway, we shift to a private taxi for the remaining distance to the chicken farm. The farm is fun, and Seth puts his drama skills to work and in 2 hours runs through a bunch of tasks that he’d normally spend most of the day doing. We shoot his ‘before the bike’ interview and pile back into the taxi, which we’ve paid to stand by. It’s been the first full-on day of filming and it feels great to have almost 8 hours of footage in the can.

At night, the rains come again, the third rains of the day. This is heaviest, the darkness perhaps magnifying the force. Swathed in creamy toxic handfuls of DEET, I rejoice in the water-cooled breeze wearing shorts and a t-shirt in brash defiance of this high strain malaria zone. Soon, the majority of the known world will be zoned for one disease or another. Malaria already kills one million a year, mostly infants.
Back in Boston, it took two days with a rotating crew of two dozen people to load the shipping container. In Accra it takes half that many people all at once just over two hours to unload, sort and stack the shipment. It’s good to be back in David’s warm spartan home, knowing that the bikes will soon arrive and the workshops will kick off the final stage of this journey. David is still off at an orientation seminar for new volunteers, so we have his place to ourselves; that being a relative term considering how many locals are visiting us on a 24hr basis. One of these young folks is Shargy, son of the community elder Moses. Shargy looks like a teenage Miles Davis. He speaks in proverbs and asks probing questions that at first are a bit unsettling, but quickly disarming and humorous. Here’s a Shargy (which by the way is pronounced ‘shaggy’) proverb: Butterflies should not think of themselves as birds. Indeed. As I drift off into the haze of half-sleep that I’ve become accustomed to here, I mull over something that Shargy said to me just before he took leave for the night; in order for Africa to move forward, it must let go of it’s traditions and history that hold it’s people back.

We set off early for the clinic to rendezvous with Nurse Leticia, and already the rains threaten. By the time we reach the nurses’ quarters, a light drizzle has begun, but Leticia is undeterred. I loan Wili my rain parka and set up under the eves of an unused storage building, affording a view of the open plain between Leticia’s residence and the hospital. The lessons begin and at first it’s a bit comical, as would be any adult learning to ride a bike. Leticia is fiercely determined, and as the rain increases so does her resolve. At one point during their efforts the volume of rain became severe, so there was a break in the action to collect water in basins and fill the storage reservoirs for the coming dry season. When the reservoir was full the cycling lessons resumed.
Amazingly, we realize that she plans to master the machine in just a few short hours. Pausing to catch her breath she explains to me that the puddles motivate her not to fall because she does not want to get muddy. She only tumbles twice and in fact does get the physical mechanics of cycling down in small time. Wilisto is as amazed as we are, telling me it took him days to learn to ride as a child. It has been raining with increasing ferocity and as a pack of shouting children run by we learn that one of the levees has broken, meaning fish are flopping around waiting to be caught by hand. Leticia admonishes them not to run a certain way because the flooding also means that the pit where the clinic discards it’s used needles has also overflowed. WTF! We think and say out loud, but there is nothing we can do. This is Africa, and even though the nurses carry the proper boxes for disposing of sharps, apparently the next step is to just dump the full boxes together in a pit that gets burned once a week. The mud swirling around our feet takes on a new toxic menace.

On the way back to our village, we discover just how dangerous this storm has been. The same levee that provided fish for the masses and flooded the toxic disposal pit has also washed out the only road. Four feet of rushing water blocks our path, so we turn to embark on a two-hour journey the long way round. We’re riding bikes with all our gear on our backs, which is barely comfortable on short distances. The crowd at the breeched road begins shouting wildly – we can’t ride the long way or we will surely be consumed in the even heavier rains bearing down. Everyone grabs our gear from us and starts ferrying us across. I take a quick inventory of the cuts and scrapes on my lower body and wonder which ones will get infected first. At least we’ve got the industrial strength portable pharmacy back at David’s.
Clothing has been taking around three days to line dry in the humidity. Now that the air is predominantly water, ‘dry’ is a cruel joke. We stuff our boots with old newspaper and pathetically hold the insoles over the two-burner stove. Next up is a fun read of the medical texts in the first-aid kit. Our toxic floodplain crossing presents a host of exciting possibilities – bilharzia anyone? We decide to play it safe and start dosing Doxycycline with dinner. With days ahead of us before we can wrap up this phase of the project, our morale is low and ebbing. I think of guys like J. Michael Fay and J. Craig Venter, slogging across the jungles of the world trying to cure the planet and I think – “I’m a pussy”.

It is difficult for the tortoise to climb the mountain; another Shargy proverb. Morning on the day of the first VBP session kicks off with an ice-pick-to-the-eyes headache, screaming children who are probably being beaten, or worse, three visitors before 6am and a lot of confusing issues to resolve before the workshops begin. Leticia’s boss is being difficult and threatening to fire her if she attends the seminar. We surmise that the man is pissed he’s not getting a bike, so Moses and David go off to try and smooth things out.
The head of the Songorinya water and sanitation committee lives in front of the filthiest pig slop of stagnant water in his village.

Women are empowered to acquire bicycles, yet still some of them are just stand-ins for brothers or husbands who could not meet the quota and will take the bikes in their place.

Education is mandatory, but children are still likely to be raped and beaten at home.

Dams are built on high ground, roads low.

Students are everywhere and the teachers are on strike.

Money is counted by the thickness of the fold of bills in ones hand; yet the individual notes hold almost no value.

Arts and crafts are made with great care for tourists while basic household needs are made shoddily.

Even in the capitol, most houses do not have toilets. Sanitation is a major neglected issue while related diseases are treated with expensive drugs and ad campaigns.

What would it take to manufacture bicycles in Africa rather than importing Western discards?

Could recycling be implemented as an industry in every country where poor sanitation is an epidemic?

My bloodshot brain stews over these questions as we freeze in the international airport, waiting forever for our flight to London, our flight towards home. In the waiting lounge, one last shot at malaria circles my beer warily, dodging my feeble swipes of arms already dotted with worrisome bites.
A return to Ghana is inevitable, but what will we find there? David Branigan’s tour of duty is over, and he will have returned to the States before we can muster the second phase of filming. David Peckham had sworn to never return to Africa after a serious battle with malaria contracted in Gabon. Recently he seems to have re-found his strength and love for the mission. The Atsu’s continue to hold down the corner, we get fleeting email reports from Papayo reminding us to not forget them – as if we ever could. As for Wilisto, Rejoyce, Shargy, Seth, Nurse Leticia, Moses and the rest of our friends in Songorniya, only our own return voyage can tell.

Author – Eric Matthies

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