Photo caption: Zambian schoolgirl Mary Lewinika riding her new bike. (Leah Missbach Day/GlobalPost)
LUSAKA, Zambia — At the age of 19, Mary Lewanika is old enough to be in college pursuing her chosen career of teaching. But due to many challenges, including the long distance to the nearest school, she has only just entered eighth grade.
Lewanika is one of many girls in her area who received a bicycle as part of an educational initiative led by American NGO World Bicycle Relief, which will distribute some 50,000 bicycles to impoverished schoolchildren — mainly girls — in rural Zambia.
"It is unlikely that I would have made it to Grade Eight if I didn't have a bicycle. From my village in Ndapula to here [Lwimba Basic School] it is 9 kilometers [5.5 miles] one way, and I don't think I would have managed to walk 18 kilometers [10 miles] each day," said Lewanika.
Like most African girls living in rural areas, Lewanika wakes up at 5 a.m. to sweep the yard and prepare breakfast for her family. Then she rides her bicycle a mile to the village well to fetch water that will be used by her parents and her eight siblings during the day while she is at school. Afterward, she sets out on the 5.5-mile ride to school.
"I always start off early because my girlfriend has no bicycle and I have to give her a lift to school. Otherwise she is not able to walk to school and back," Lewanika explained.
In Zambia, like in much of rural Africa, fewer girls attend school mostly because of the long distances involved and the tendency by some parents to use this as an excuse to push them into early marriages. A government of Zambia education survey in 2002 named distance as a major hindrance to rural children attending school; 27 percent of them dropped out because of this challenge, according to the survey.
In addition, the impact of HIV/AIDS, which affects an estimated 16 percent of the population, as well as the growing number of orphans and child-led households, help explain why only 60 percent of primary schoolchildren in Zambia complete their education.
It is in the face of these challenges that World Bicycle Relief’s Bicycles for Educational Empowerment Program — BEEP, launched in 2009 — is building on the "trickle-down" value of educating girls.
“There is no investment more effective for achieving development goals than educating girls,” stated the World Bank, citing lower pregnancy rates, lower infant child mortality rates and protection against HIV/AIDS infection among the benefits of educating girls.
The bicycles are not intended for recreation, as they are often used in the developed world. A parent of each of the disadvantaged girls who received a bicycle was made to sign a two-year contract that requires the recipient to attend class daily, use her bicycle prudently on transportation and household chores, and never for frivolous activities like beer parties.
"These bicycles are not for adults to ride as they please. Whenever I have a trip to make, I have to ask for permission from Mary. If she refuses, that is that. She owns the bicycle," said Ackson Lewanika, Mary’s father.
Mary has many friends at her school, including Cynthia Mulenga, 18, from Shengula village. Cynthia is in Mary’s class and wants to be a policewoman. Mulenga, whose mother died five years ago, says she used to walk an hour and a half one way from her grandmother's village to the Lwimba Basic School before.
"Then they gave me a bicycle and it is now so exciting, I really fly," Mulenga declared with excitement.
Jephias Mutombeni is the Guidance and Counseling teacher at Lwimba Basic School, and teaches Mary and Cynthia. “Looking at the program of World Bicycle Relief, I can see that there has been tremendous improvement among students in terms of attendance. In the past, we used to experience a lot of absenteeism, but with this, attendance has improved. We hope that even the performance of the students, in the near future, will also improve," Mutombeni said.
Another teacher, Joseph Musati, head teacher of the Ndapula Community School where Lewanika completed grade seven, emphasized the positive benefits of the bikes.
"These bicycles have really changed the lives of our children for the better. ... I am also happy with the vigilance of the monitoring committee that oversees usage of the bikes, because parents who misuse them by taking them to beer parties are made to lose them," he said.
Indeed, at Ndapula Community school 15 bikes were parked by a tree after having been confiscated from those that were abusing them. The cycles were later redistributed to other needy children.
F.K. Day, co-founder of World Bicycle Relief, explains that the organization supplies sturdy bicycles and trains local craftsmen as mechanics to make sure the bicycles stay in use.
“As our programming continues to be effective, we are looking outward to other countries to expand our impact," said Day. "We are currently creating stronger relationships in our existing countries of operation of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, and have begun exploring opportunities in Mozambique, Malawi and Uganda."
Lewis Mwanangombe is a Zambian journalist based in Lusaka who writes for Associated Press, Inter Press Service, Pan-African News Agency and the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation. Mwanangombe has also worked for the the Zambia News Agency as deputy editor-in-chief and for the Zambian president as press secretary.