January 12, 2015

By Douglas Cruickshank  Photography by Will Boase

When Muyambi Muyambi '12 was 7 years old, he came down with what his family suspected was malaria. The family's remote village in Kiyaga, Uganda, was 10 miles from the nearest hospital, a journey that could take hours by foot for a healthy adult, let alone an adult carrying a sick child on his or her back. But luckily for Muyambi, his neighbor had a bicycle, and the young boy was loaded into the bike's carrier and shuttled along the bumpy road. When he reached the hospital, he learned that the family's suspicions were correct: He had malaria. Thousands and thousands of others in the same situation who didn't or couldn't make it to clinics in time fell terribly ill or died. But thanks in part to that bike, this child lived.

It's difficult, perhaps, for average Americans to imagine that a bicycle could be utterly essential to one's health, well-being and livelihood. Many of the poorest Americans have automobiles, and the vast majority of Americans use bicycles, if they use them at all, for recreation and exercise. But in Uganda, bikes are critically important — the go-to means of transportation for those who can afford them.

These days, bicycle ambulances are seen more and more in Uganda, and bicycle taxis are ubiquitous in the bigger towns and even in the capital of Kampala. Women and men are hauling quantities of produce they would not have been able to transport to market in one load without their bikes, which also allow them to ride with babies on their backs and toddlers perched atop bunches of matooke (plantain) or sacks of sweet potatoes.

  Muyambi Muyambi '12

But there are still areas in Uganda in which people often travel by foot, walking long distances across the country's verdant landscape and bustling towns and cities, frequently with heavy loads. Just getting to and from the rural trading centers — towns that serve as markets for the smaller surrounding villages — can be a trek, especially when hauling goods. For country kids, even getting to school can be a marathon, with children setting out very early by foot, hours before classes begin, and getting home as the sun is setting or after dark.

As Muyambi prepared for college in 2007, he thought a lot about bikes and the potential they could bring to Ugandans. Bikes, Muyambi knew, meant the chance for families, towns and villages to make economic strides. He also knew that, sometimes, they could mean the difference between life and death. So more than a decade after a bike saved Muyambi's life, he began to work so that others could be saved, too.

Muyambi arrived at Bucknell ready to pursue a degree in civil engineering, but he had other things on his mind as well, including Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) back in Uganda and its troops, 90 percent of whom were children. He wanted to start a group on campus that would raise awareness of child soldiers in Uganda. During his first year at Bucknell, Muyambi applied for a grant from the Davis Projects for Peace, a national program that awards students one-time grants of $10,000 to better the world. Although he wasn't awarded a grant that first time around, the process introduced him to a mentor in Janice Butler, Bucknell's director of civic engagement and service-learning. With her guidance, Muyambi applied for a grant from the university arm of the Clinton Global Initiative to fund Bicycles Against Poverty (BAP), aimed at providing bicycles to those who need them most.

It was also during that first year at Bucknell that Muyambi met Molly Burke '10, one of the founders of a student group called Child Soul, which was working to get the word out about the tragedies facing children in Muyambi's home country. The pair shared a vision of a better future for the people of Uganda. So in 2008, when two grants came through to fund BAP (one from the Clinton Global Initiative and one from Muyambi's second attempt at a Davis Projects for Peace grant), Muyambi sent an email to Burke in all caps. It read: "WE'RE GOING TO UGANDA."

They set up headquarters in the Gulu district, an arid, star-crossed town still reeling from the ravages of the civil war and guerrilla incursions that brutalized the region until 2005

"It's an area that didn't have development, didn't have much infrastructure being built for 20 years, and 95 percent of our participants lived in refugee camps," said Burke, now BAP's executive director. "They couldn't go to school, or if they could, it was very limited. They couldn't farm. They couldn't build any health clinics or markets. Much of their life was put on pause for 20 years."

BAP distributed its first 100 bicycles in northern Uganda in July 2009. They did it again in 2010 and 2011. By 2013, the world began to take notice, and Burke and Muyambi, who today serves BAP largely through fundraising initiatives from Washington, D.C., where he works as an engineer, were named National Geographic Travelers of the Year. To date, BAP has distributed more than 1,000 bikes.

But the pair and the organization they've built aren't just handing out bikes on Gulu's streets. The process to obtain one through BAP requires an application to determine both the need for a bike and the borrower's ability to pay off the loan of about 220,000 shillings, or $85. The BAP team has learned that people are more likely to take care of a bicycle they've worked for as opposed to one that has been handed to them.

The group works with partner organizations to identify participants for the program. The hope is to spread one bike's impact to many people. Women are more likely to be approved, given that BAP's research indicates they are more inclined to make timely payments and share the bike and its benefits with the communities in which they live.  

"You see women being empowered by having bicycles," Burke said, "because it alleviates so much extra time and burden on them and really frees them. And for a farmer, which many of the women are, that means better access to markets."

In the end, BAP makes about $12 per bike, though the group is planning to increase that a bit in the next year, looking for what Burke calls that "sweet spot" that will keep BAP on solid financial footing, allowing the organization to pay its staff in Uganda — those who teach the workshops, collect loan payments and offer community support — while still providing bikes at an affordable price.

The idea behind the project is simple. But once the people of Gulu start cycling — many in remote, rural parts of Africa — how can BAP be sure the program is working? As it turns out, there's a certain simplicity to that too. The organization tracks every way in which the bike has impacted the lives of recipients.

The most significant means of measuring success, Burke said, is poverty reduction, as measured by an increase in income as well as assets, including items such as cell phones, mattresses or radios, over time. An income jump of 68 percent is not uncommon for families who own bikes, and that can help spur the local economy. BAP also keeps track of its clients' health and how often the bike is shared with the community.

We know that each bike is shared with at least five people on a frequent basis," said Burke.

The BAP group will stay in contact with people like Opiyo Deogracious, a farmer who received his first bike in February 2013 in hopes that he might use it to bring more crops to market in order to raise more money for his education. His plan is to pursue a medical degree to bring medical assistance to his village. BAP will also check back with Akena Walter, who used to carry 45 pounds of beans to market. He received a bike in June 2011, increased his market sales and used the money to open a hair salon that doubles as a hub for charging cell phones.

These days in Gulu, bikes are seen more and more often, some with a BAP logo in full display. Occasionally, you can see a husband taking his wife to a maternity clinic by bike to deliver their baby. And sometimes you can see a mother taking an ill child to the hospital a few miles down the road for treatment, just as 7-year-old Muyambi was transported all those years ago.

This story originally appeared in Bucknell Magazine. To read more from the latest issue, click here.