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By Sam Alcorn
LEWISBURG, Pa. — The war-torn villages of northern Uganda are a world away from the Bucknell University campus. But a student group saw an opportunity to address poverty there.
Bicycles Against Poverty (BAP) led eight current students, four Class of 2009 graduates and three members of the Bucknell staff to Uganda for three weeks in July and August to establish a sustainable bicycle microfinance program. The summer effort involved distribution of more than 100 bicycles to needy families, training volunteers to keep the program running and holding seminars on bicycle repair.
"The idea of giving bicycles was so, so welcomed. The people were so excited," said Muyambi Muyambi, Class of '11 and a civil and environmental engineering major from Uganda. "The (Ugandan) government was impressed with our project."
Group raised $35,000
To get the ball rolling, BAP raised a total of $35,000 - through extensive campus fundraising efforts like Bands and Bikes - and grants from organizations like the Clinton Global Initiative, 100 Projects for Peace and DoSomething.org. (In addition, BAP has received an additional $6,000 grant from the Clinton Global Initiative to partner with students at Brown University to establish a sustainable bicycle program in Haiti in 2010.)
There, too, was immediate gratification in seeing the single-gear bicycles being put to good use.
"We ended up distributing 102 bikes," Muyambi said. "It's something you use right away — riding to work, transporting things. Because it was harvest time, people were really happy with that. We were right on time. We went back after a few days and we could see our bicycles being used."
Essential to economy
The bicycles are essential to the economy in the small villages like Kona Nwoya and Lulyango in northern Uganda, which has been ravaged by a 22-year civil war, said Muyambi. They can be used to carry fare-paying passengers and to transport goods and perishable produce to market. They also can be used to fetch well water that may be located miles away, thereby allowing families more time to focus on making a living.
More than 300 families applied for the bicycles, and those families who received one will contribute a monthly payment of $2 to a general fund to pay back just half the cost of the bikes. Proceeds will be used to buy more bicycles.
The trip wasn't without a few twists. A contact Muyambi had made in December and a church group BAP had hoped to work with were unable to follow through with assistance. In addition, permission of local officials was required before BAP could talk with potential bike recipients.
Starting from scratch
As a result, "we had to start from scratch and get Community-Based Organization status from the government," said Muyambi. "That required us sitting through the night and writing a constitution in no time. We had so much paperwork. We had to write terms of agreement, applications, surveys we carried out. That had to be translated into the local language — Luo — for easy understanding."
In addition to Muyambi, BAP members who traveled to Uganda this summer are Class of '09 graduates Abhay Agarwal, Alyson Cobb, Sophia Magalona and Megan Vodzak; Class of '10 students Molly Burke, Erika Iouriev, Colin Thomas and Kylie Brandt; Class of 11 students Kevin Matthews and Nicole Meyers; and Odeke Ekirapa, Class of '12. Accompanying the student contingent were Janice Butler, director of Service Learning; DeeAnn Reeder, assistant professor of biology; and John Doces, assistant professor of political science.
The summer trip has served as an impetus for other Bucknell involvement.
Charles Kim, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, said four of his students — Grant Parseghian, Tim McLees, Brandon Fox and Adam Andersen — will work on a senior design project that will augment the capabilities of the bicycles that were delivered in Uganda.
"Two potential projects to that end are a trailer to haul cargo and passengers and a human-powered grinder for maize and other produce," said Kim. "We'll work on developing various concepts and testing them here at Bucknell during the year. The main goal of the project is to design something useful to the folks in Uganda that can be manufactured and maintained by the local community."
There are other opportunities for Bucknell involvement when BAP returns to Uganda in 2010.
One idea being explored is to equip BAP bikes with a small electric generator that can be used to charge a cell phone.
Involving more students
"We are trying to involve students from all aspects," said Muyambi. "In the areas we are working in, there is a definite need for education. The small school in the village has no library and the school needs a lot of help in that area. Some of the teachers aren't paid. Many do not have adequate preparation. So, we are looking to involve Bucknell students, education majors especially, to help as student teachers and in providing resource material."
While on the ground in Uganda, the group learned quite a bit about managing such a complex project.
"One of the most important lessons was being flexible because we were depending on things we could not control," said Muyambi. "One thing I learned was managing a huge group — 14 people in my country. And there was managing expectations and making sure everyone was on the same page."
Prior to leaving for Uganda, Muyambi participated in Bucknell's Institute for Leadership in Technology and Management for which he was thankful. "Going right from school into practice was really good," he said. "It was important to make clear what our vision was and what we wanted to achieve. It was good to go and apply what you've just learned."
What's next for BAP?
"We are trying to establish our NGO (non-government organization) status in the U.S.," he said. "Our vision is that BAP will become an NGO and we can have chapters at universities we can reach. Perhaps each chapter could focus on providing bicycles for a village. When I graduate, that's not the end. That might actually be the beginning."
Contact: Division of Communications