Lehman alumnus Joe Diomede (B.A., ’83) has traveled from his home in France to Sierra Leone on the West African coast, a nation still recovering from a brutal decade-long civil war that ended in 2002. An avid cyclist, Diomede is working for the next three months with an organization called the Village Bicycle Project (villagebicycleproject.org) to repair and refurbish bicyles, a means of transportation that can dramatically improve both the lives and economic futures of those residing in villages far from the city center. From time to time, he will share his experiences in a blog with the Lehman community.
September 26, 2012
Today the project brought us to a tiny village called Che Mende. The village is tiny and literally hacked out of the jungle. The London mining company continues to extract iron ore from the ground, and the roads used to the mines are in great shape, but the roads for the locals who work in the mines, well, you wouldn’t call them roads anywhere else in the world.
The village (as all the villages and towns for that matter) has very limited water resources, and electricity is non-existent everywhere, unless you can afford a generator and petrol, which most can’t. The program works well, and instead of just giving bikes away, which wouldn’t be a good idea, the project runs one-day workshops for 20 people, and the people are screened for the need. Funny saying that in a place where on the surface everyone looks in that predicament, but there are some far worse off than others. They pay a very subsidized price which comes out to about $4.00 U.S. (160,000 leones) with a meal so they really respect it.
After attending the workshop, which goes through basic mechanics of the bike, the attendees then get to pick a bike. The bikes are mostly from the States, and some of them are fantastic quality bikes from the early and late 90′s. It’s the era of bike I love the most for Mountain bikes. So the people are getting mostly nice bikes that should last a long time. The smiles on their faces as they get their bikes are magnificent. Lunch is included in the program; today we had a take-away curry from the local shop. Okay, I’m kidding and just wishing. It was rice with a sort of soupy fish stew on top. It was served in a communal bowl where the instructors eat together and the students do the same. Today we didn’t eat a lot, so we gave the bowls to the kids in the school, and the scene could make you cry. As the bowl hit the ground, about 15 little kids descended on it, and it was gone in three
seconds, as skinny little hands scraped around for every morsel and in a chaotic blur got as much into their mouths as possible.
The mud-thatched houses with straw roofs are magnificent structures, and I was telling the village elders as we had a chat that in Europe people are writing books to build just such structures. They were very pleased to hear that. We had a quick talk about other things as well. Toilets are pretty much non-existent, and water comes from the pumps that every village seems to have. (Looks like another NGO at work.) Purified water comes in plastic bags, and today a young kid popped one, and the adults freaked [at the sound] and he was sent away in disgrace. I was told it was a symptom of the brutal civil war that ripped apart the country, and the people want no reminders of that terrible era. I stood humbled as I probably do eight out of the 15 hours I’m awake here.
It is lovely helping the program to expand, although the roads are rough going, and three on a motorcycle is quite normal. Transport like that is called Okara. It is how we get back from the programs. We arrive with a truck and the bikes stacked on top. (See the photo.) It is weird rolling, or should I say bumping, along the roads to the small villages. Seven miles take at least 45 minutes. As we drive through, the kids wave and smile and so do the adults. I am yet again known in another country of the world as “the bike guy.”
Okay, bed beckons. I made spaghetti with oil and garlic today (“spaghetti alleluia” in our house). At the table were two Dutch medical students and another volunteer from our program in Ghana showing me the ropes, and Kadi, our local woman on the ground helping us with another program that teaches kids how to ride. It was a very international affair.
We CAN make a difference in the world, and 40 more people are riding bicycles to their farms or schools where they work because of this project.