My Perfect Adventure
The wheel is often touted as one of the best inventions of all time. From automobiles to factory equipment and even Vanna White’s famous game show, it’s ubiquitous in most of our lives. And if F.K. Day has anything to do with it, we won’t ever take it for granted.
Day is president of World Bicycle Relief, a Chicago-based non-profit that uses the wheel—or rather two wheels—to empower people in more than 12 developing African countries. The organization’s logic is simple: In areas with poor roads and no sustainable transportation, people must often walk prohibitively long distances to reach clean water, schools, health clinics, and jobs. World Bicycle Relief provides bicycles so they can travel farther and quicker, allowing health care workers to visit more patients, students to stay in class, and employees to continue working. Compared to walking, the wheel boosts productivity and access to health care, education, and economic opportunities.
Day cofounded World Bicycle Relief after years working with the for-profit SRAM Corporation, now the world’s second-biggest bike components manufacturer, which he also founded alongside his brother after college. But World Bicycle Relief doesn’t use SRAM products. Instead, it designs bicycles specifically for the communities it seeks to help—with the durability to travel on poor roads and carry large loads. Since 2005, the charity has provided more than 115,000 bicycles and trained more than 800 field mechanics to assemble and repair them locally. Now it’s looking to raise more support and boost output with a special year-end campaign, promising to match all donations through December 31. Here, Day tells us what he’s learned from a Zambian bike mechanic, why he wants to sail at sea, and how traveling to Sri Lanka helped him develop a mantra.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
My perfect day starts outside the small village of Mwinilunga, in the Northwest Territory of Zambia on the Angola/Congo border. Here you can step over the Great Zambezi River. I have a cup of coffee in my hands and I’m watching the night sky as it fades into first light. The intricate network of footpaths begins to come alive with villagers starting their daily routines.
I ride a bicycle in the morning mist, along one of the paths leading out of town. I stop at a row of small single-room shacks made of hand-baked bricks and spend the day with Mr. Phiri, a World Bicycle Relief field mechanic. Phiri has been repairing village bikes ever since he was a child. He hangs his spare inner tubes and tires on a nail protruding from his door, unlocks a small chest of spare parts, and unrolls a towel and an oily piece of cardboard, revealing a trove of worn tools. Friends greet the familiar face as they peddle or walk by. They point at me and laugh, saying: “Good morning. How are you?” I reply: “I am fine, thank you. How are you?” We all burst into laughter, as we’ve reached the edge of our common language, and we wave goodbye.
My job today isn’t to help Phiri fix the five worn down bikes leaning against the hand-cut post of his thatched-roofed shack. My job is to understand how the bikes wear out, how they break when they fail, what spares are available, and how Phiri fixes them. My job is to learn the economics that drive his business. We work together all morning. I hand him tools or parts that he points to, taking notes on the discoveries. Some of what I learn is new; some I have seen before.
A truck rumbles by. The driver drapes his elbow over the door and stares at me until we both wave. He honks and bumps along.
For lunch, Phiri and I walk 100 meters down the dirt road, greeting each person along the way until we reach a shack with smoke escaping through the chimney. We eat a small cooked lunch, mostly Nshima, a corn-based mush dipped in ground kale and herbs. We eat with our hands and talk about Phiri’s family. He shares stories about those who have passed on from HIV/AIDS: his wife, his father, a brother, a sister, and one of his sons (whose children he now cares for). His stories are told as simple fact, but to me they are heartbreaking. Phiri lives in an area with relatively low HIV/AIDS prevalence due to tribal circumcision customs.