Freewheeling

Welcome to Ghana, where commuting is a nightmare—and optimism is a bright-yellow bike of one's own

    Photo: Illustration by Jeff Soto

The Hard Way: A 75-Dollar Bicycle Revolutionizes

AS WE RIDE UP TO THE FISH FARM, a mob of women crushes against the tall metal gates. They have walked here through suffocating heat and humidity, from mud huts dotting the Western Sahara veldt, carrying tin basins on their heads. Packed together, they are desperate, determined, on the verge of breaking down the fence. Workers inside are wielding sticks to keep them from clambering over the top.

Brad Schroeder, my unflappable guide, squeezes his yellow bicycle straight into the fray. I follow on his heels. The gates crack open just long enough for us to slip through to the compound beyond, the surge of humanity attempting to follow us inside.

A tall man in sunglasses, his shaven head glistening with sweat, greets us. "What's going on?" yells Schroeder as they smoothly execute the Ghanaian handshake: white-man clasp, brother clasp, white man, brother, mutual snap of the fingers.

"Giving away free fish," replies Mark Amechi, smiling broadly.

Amechi, 33, is the Nigerian-German owner and operator of Tropo Farms, a fish company he founded here, near the banks of the Volta River, in the West African nation of Ghana. He has a master's degree in aquaculture and raises tilapia, a one-pound white-flesh fish he sells to the markets down south in the Atlantic-coast city of Accra, Ghana's capital of two million. Just this morning, Amechi traveled to the nearby village of Asutsuare to announce that he would be handing out 3,000 pounds of undersize stock. That's roughly seven pounds of perfectly good fish per person, worth about $2.50—more than a day's wage for a rural Ghanaian. By the time Amechi got back to the farm, word had spread and a throng of villagers had arrived to claim their share.

"Might as well help out the local families," explains Amechi. "The fish would rot otherwise." He invites us into his un-air-conditioned office and proffers a bottle of ice water and some oranges. Schroeder and I have just cycled 65 brain-baking miles north from Accra, across rolling farmland, and we're dripping profusely in the equatorial heat.

Schroeder, a 27-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, is the Ghana program officer for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization based in New York whose mission is "to promote environmentally sustainable and equitable transportation worldwide." His current goal is to make bicycling in Ghana more economically feasible and reliable by importing well-built bikes designed for the rugged conditions in Africa. Until now, Ghana's bike market has consisted primarily of new and used single-speed city bikes from Europe and shoddily built imitation mountain bikes from Asia—which sell for between $40 and $100.

In 2002, Paul Steely White, ITDP's Africa regional director, spearheaded a plan to create an affordable bicycle that would combine the dependability of European bikes with the versatility of mountain bikes. Then he teamed up with Waterloo, Wisconsin-based bike giant Trek to create just such a product. "The challenge," Trek president John Burke told me, "was to build a durable, high-quality bike that was actually affordable for Africans."

Manufactured for Trek in China, the so-called California Bike—named, according to White, to give bicycling a successful, upscale image—is a banana-yellow, six-speed hybrid mountain bike with a chrome-moly frame and fenders, sturdy rear rack, and puncture-resistant tires. To date, ITDP has imported 600 of the bikes to Ghana and sold them to local companies and dealers at cost.

Schroeder is irreverent, inexhaustible, realistic yet irrepressibly optimistic—the kind of guy who solves problems with an élan born of directness. He works like a dog, drinks like a fish, and pops beer caps off with his teeth. He and I had spent the last three days wheeling through the thickly polluted, impossibly congested, blaring, sweltering, treacherous streets of Accra.

Today's ride is our first into the bush—it's Schroeder's mission to deliver the California Bikes we are riding to a village to the north and to check in on Amechi's recent acquisition of 26 bikes for his employees. The bikes cost $75 each; Amechi picked up 30 percent, and the workers will pay off the rest of their purchase through deductions from their paychecks over the next seven months.

"So how're the bikes working out?" Schroeder asks Amechi, speaking clearly even with an entire orange in his mouth.

"Brilliantly," Amechi says. "Already they've become something of a status symbol. The men are quite proud of them. Some of my guys were walking five to ten miles to work, so I've seen a significant decrease in tardiness. They have so much more freedom now. A few even ride home for lunch. There's a newfound self-esteem." Glancing out the door to the front gate beyond, he pauses. "Would you excuse me for a moment?"

Amechi springs to his feet, races into another room, then flies past us and out the door, shoving shells into a shotgun as he runs. The villagers have burst through the gates and are rushing helter-skelter toward the ponds to get their fish. It's bedlam. Amechi raises the shotgun and fires into the air. They freeze. He fires again, and then, shotgun in hand, charges the mob, bellowing at the top of his lungs. The crowd spins about en masse, hightailing it back out through the twisted gates, where Amechi will have them wait to be let in, ten at a time.

I'm stunned, but Schroeder merely shakes his head: "Giving anything away for free never works."

THERE ARE TWO Africas: the bush—ancient, agrarian, slow to change—and the city—vibrant, dissonant, evolving by the minute. This dichotomy is especially vivid in Ghana, an English-speaking country of 20 million, roughly the size of Oregon, on the Gulf of Guinea. Nicknamed the Gold Coast in the 17th century for its lucrative precious-metal trade, Ghana was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence, in 1957. Today, it's a relatively stable democracy with one of the most prosperous agricultural economies in West Africa.

In Ghana, as in the rest of the continent, life in the bush often revolves around basic human needs: food, water, shelter. Services remain so spread out and transportation options so few, villagers often walk enormous distances every day—to their fields, to the well, to market, to school, to medical clinics. Unimaginable hours of productivity and education are lost for lack of efficient transport, let alone the suffering endured because of too-distant health care. In rural Africa, less than 1 percent of the population owns a car. A staggering 70 percent of freight, from bricks to buckets of water, is still transported on the heads of women.

The problem is just the opposite in the city. Africa's inexorable rural-to-urban migration—at 4.9 percent, its annual urban growth rate is the highest in the world—has turned metropolitan centers into sprawling toxic messes. Too many cars, too many taxis, too many tro-tros, or private minivans. Traffic accidents occur with alarming frequency, and deaths per vehicle are 50 times those in the U.S. In the major urban areas of West Africa, 75 percent of commuters live within six miles of work; in Accra, however, 35 percent take a taxi or tro-tro, at a cost of about $1 round-trip—this despite the fact that incomes can be as little as $3 a day. The result is a country—and continent—in desperate need of alternative transportation.

Enter ITDP and Brad Schroeder. A rock climber, Appalachian Trail through-hiker, and competitive water-skier with a B.S. in environmental science, Schroeder joined the Peace Corps in 2000. He was stationed in Volivo, a village in southern Ghana with no electricity and no running water. Over the course of two years, he learned to speak Dangbe (one of Ghana's 75 tribal dialects), drilled five potable-water boreholes, built a canoe that sank in the Volta, came down with malaria, and developed a taste for akpeteshi, palm-wine moonshine.

At the end of his hitch, the sounds, smells, and tastes of Africa had so permeated Schroeder that he decided to stay in Ghana, took a job in Accra with ITDP, and began work on the California Bike program.

"The bikes aren't free—that would only put the local bike dealers out of business," Schroeder tells me over lunch at a restaurant the next day, back in the welter of Accra. He explains that he's organizing Ghanaian bike dealers into a co-op that will have the financial resources to buy and sell California Bikes on its own: "So many well-meaning NGO projects have devastated local business and replaced it with a welfare economy. That's unsustainable. Besides, it robs people of their pride." He fires down his de rigueur double shot of gin, stands up, and swings his leg over his bicycle. "C'mon," he says. "You can see how it's working." And back into the fray we fly.

Our first stop is Latex Foam, an Accra mattress factory that employs 300 workers and has just purchased California Bikes for 20 of its top employees. As we arrive, the workers are wheeling around, getting acquainted with their new rigs.

"They are too good to be true," says Eric Nayanyi, 35, the union chairman at the factory. "The workers with the California Bikes will no longer be stuck in traffic, missing wages."

Down the road, a powdered-milk company called Promasidor is awaiting delivery of 60 California Bikes. Managing director Dirk Laeremans tells us, "The price of gasoline doubled recently. These bicycles will save our employees considerable commuter money. My guess is that, in five to ten years, many, many people will be bicycling here."

Last on our agenda is Accra's city hall: We have an audience with Mayor Solomon Darko.

"Bicycles are an obvious transportation solution," says Darko, speaking from behind foot-high stacks of paper on his desk. "They're inexpensive, often faster than a car in the city, cost the government nothing, and are pollution-free." Darko is a city planner by profession, educated in the Netherlands and Great Britain. He and the Accra city government, in consultation with ITDP, are developing a master plan to build a system of bike lanes throughout the capital. "People will bicycle if they feel safe," he adds. "Why not? It's a healthy, beautiful thing. We already have excellent examples of this in our country. Have you been to Tamale, in the north?"

"We're flying up there tomorrow," Schroeder says.

The mayor listens carefully as Schroeder outlines our itinerary: first, a tour of the progressive, bike-friendly city of Tamale, followed by a three-day, 235-mile test ride of the California Bike through rural Ghana's roughest terrain. We'll pedal from Tamale to Yendi, Bimbila, and Salaga, then back up to Tamale, where we'll drop off our bikes at a dealer—the first in the area to join the ITDP program. When Schroeder finishes, Darko looks at us gravely and says: "That is no small thing."

ON THE HOUR-AND-A-HALF flight to Tamale the next day, Schroeder and I are joined by Ben Gherardi, 26, a six-foot-four jock from Fort Collins, Colorado, who works for Right to Play, a Toronto, Canada-based NGO that promotes health through sports. Brad and Ben are boon companions, having done everything there is to do within a 300-mile radius of Accra: rock climbing in the Volta region, kitesurfing off Cape Coast, road trips to Togo and the Ivory Coast. We assemble our bikes at the airport, then ride the 12 miles into town.

Tamale, a thriving northern commercial hub of about 150,000 surrounded by savanna, is indeed a bicycling wonder. In the early 1990s, the World Bank funded the construction of 15-foot-wide paved bicycle paths that parallel the main streets on both sides, as well as low concrete barriers that separate motor vehicles from bicyclists and pedestrians. A decade later, more than 15 percent of trips in Tamale are made by bicycle.

We spend all day cruising around town, marveling at the efficiency and pleasantness of it all. Not surprisingly, there are people on bikes everywhere: men in billowing blue caftans, schoolgirls in brown-and-orange uniforms, farmers with hoes tied to the top tube, village women with towering loads of firewood roped to the rear rack.

The next day, we ride to Yendi, bouncing along a rutted mud track through hand-tilled yam and cassava plots. Over the course of 65 miles, only two groaning trucks and an occasional courageous car pass us, but cyclists are numerous—all types of people wheeling from one village to the next on typical Ghanaian bikes: heavy, slow, jury-rigged contraptions.

An hour into our second day, the rough road takes its toll on us: Schroeder's seatpost, raised high to accommodate his lanky legs, buckles under the pressure. His only options are to sit on the rear rack, as if he were on a recumbent, or to pedal standing up. So he reclines on his panniers, singing a riff from Easy Rider and spinning like a circus bear.

"Sure you can ride like that?" I ask.

"No sweat," Schroeder replies, although he's drenched and straining. "It's just a minor design flaw. We're still tweaking the bike to find the right balance of strength and weight."

By the time we straggle into Bimbila, Schroeder has ridden 20 miles on a bumpy dirt track without a saddle, not complaining once. We go straight to the village blacksmith, a stick-thin, barefoot man sitting cross-legged amid a pile of scrap metal. He studies the problem, then goes to work with his tongs, tiny forge, and anvil (a chunk of railroad track). Using a one-inch-diameter piece of solid rebar he's found at his feet, in less than ten minutes he manages to cut, fashion, and fit it inside the hollow seatpost. The homemade heavy-metal splint works perfectly.

Schroeder beams. "God, you gotta love Africa!" he says. "Improvisation is what it's all about."

THAT AFTERNOON we pedal around Bimbila, a dusty place with a roadside bike shop on nearly every corner, looking for lunch. Eventually, we're directed to a clapboard hut on the edge of town where a pair of women in bright turbans stir two large cauldrons with paddles. Inside one is fufu, yams pounded and then heated to a rubbery, mashed-potato consistency; in the other is a gruesome fish-head gruel. We pull up a couple of benches and are served.

Fufu turns out to be one of Schroeder's favorite dishes; he wolfs his plate down heartily, as does Gherardi. I'm three-quarters through my slimy, foul-tasting chowder when I feel something curious in my mouth and spit it out: a fat, white, wriggling maggot.

"Say, Brad, mind having a look at this?" I ask, figuring he'll just tell me to munch it down.

Brad and Ben peer into my bowl, and blanch.

"Well," Schroeder says in a tight voice, "I'm finished. How 'bout you guys?"

We saddle up and ride on. And on. It's another 45 miles of burning, leg-leadening, sweat-sucking dirt to Salaga. In villages along the way, our yellow bikes attract considerable attention from passing cyclists. To Schroeder's delight, several young men ask where they can buy one. At a bridge 13 miles outside of town, I don my headlamp and we carry on through dusk.

When we finally reach Salaga—a thriving slave-transfer station in the 19th century, but now an isolated village—the only rooms available are concrete cells with cold water and buckets for bathing. In these dismal surroundings, Gherardi becomes violently sick. By morning, he's so weak and pallid that we put him on the bus back to Tamale. He will eventually wind up in the Accra hospital with something nasty but unidentifiable.

SCHROEDER AND I manage to pedal the last 75 miles of packed red dirt back to Tamale. To avoid drinking the dubious village water, which might expose us to guinea worm, we pour hot Fanta and Coke into our water bottles. Every seven or eight miles, we fall off our bikes and crawl beneath the shade of a baobab tree to hide from the heat.

Each time, while I try to decide if I'm suffering from heatstroke, Schroeder invariably falls asleep and then wakes up 20 minutes later, cheerfully crying, "Doesn't get more African than this!" and hops back on his bike.

As we roll into Tamale, Schroeder tells me his dream for the bike program: "Make myself and ITDP obsolete. In our place, independent California Bike corporations in Kenya, Senegal, and South Africa owned and operated by Africans with the money and muscle to lobby their own governments and influence policy."

Africa is a peculiarly obdurate part of the world, a continent where idealism can be worn down by brutal circumstance. But dreams are the wheels of hope, and I sense that Schroeder will stick his out until at least part of it comes true.

And that would be no small thing.

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