I was dubious about joining Bike Zambia for two primary reasons. The first was that I am not someone who would be considered athletic and didn’t even own a bicycle (I actually hadn’t ridden one since my sea foam green ten-speed that I would ride with the neighbor girls when I was in grade school, which was decades ago).
The second was that I have been working in what could be classified as ‘international development’ for quite a long time. I have seen what works in a sustainable and empowering way (co-creating and cultivating local solutions, building the skills and expertise of the local population, hand-outs in emergencies only) and what doesn’t (ex-pats coming in with their own ideas on how to solve problems, creating solutions without ensuring the skills and resources are there to sustain them, and giving handouts like books, clothes, etc.). The latter, though usually well intentioned, often does much more harm than good in the long term and creates, then continues a cycle of dependency to the detriment of those it is meant to benefit.
Luckily, the founders of Bike Zambia used to work where I currently work, and my colleagues connected me with the right people to answer tough questions. After a few conversations, I realized that they thought much the same way I did and the organizations we would be supporting do exactly the sort of innovative, life- changing, and sustainable programs I believe in.
Once I was signed up, all I needed was a bike and some friends to train with. (Both of which were not difficult to come by in San Francisco.) After just a few months of training, I wasn’t sure if I was ready, but though the road (or lack of road) in Zambia was challenging and I needed breaks and ibuprofen from time to time, it was still completely do-able, beautiful, tough, and amazing all at once. I would do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. It was an incredible experience.
I find more and more as time goes by that life, for me at least, is about the power of connections. Connection to oneself, to each other, and to the world that we live in. The most beautiful thing for me about Bike Zambia was experiencing those connections. I loved holding the hands of flocks of gorgeous children smiling and giggling all around me. I loved riding side by side with local farmers who found great humor in a crew of ‘mzungus’ riding 500km just for the fun of it. I loved hearing from the beneficiaries about the impact that our support and encouragement has made in their lives. I loved the incredible team we rode with and the fantastic crew that so diligently supported us in every possible way, who I hope are all now my lifelong friends.
I also loved opening my tent flap to zebras in the morning or carefully passing mother-baboons guarding their young. I loved standing in the mists of Victoria Falls and feeling incredible small (and wet and cold but ecstatically elated) in her majesty.
I have a hard time traveling somewhere for just a week or two. I’m the kind of person who lives out of suitcases and if I want to know what Paris is like or what rural Africa is like, I will move there for a year or two. I like to know a place, the people, and their culture intimately. I want to eat the same food, do the same work, and share in a piece of it all. When I lived in rural Kenya, tour buses would come through and ‘mzungus’ would be pressed up against the windows taking photos of me, since they were so surprised to see a fair-skinned face so far out of the cities. The closest they got to knowing that place still kept the walls of an air-conditioned vehicle between them and it.
Going to Zambia for 2 weeks seemed like such a short time to me, but experiencing a place from the back or a bicycle is completely different to anything I’ve known before. We were so far off the beaten path, connecting with people and experiencing the country in such an open and special way.
I’m so thankful to have gotten past the dubiousness, bought the bike, trained hard, and challenged myself to this adventure. I am proud to have made an impact, however small, on the lives of the incredible people we encountered in Zambia and forever-grateful for the impact they and this journey have had on me.