Words by Cynthia Wilson
Riding a bike across Africa with long treks on the open road has a way of working on your soul. Throw in some tough terrain, long hot days of African sunshine, and It probably will change you.
I had never done a long ride like this before. I trained on my bike for months in Colorado but I wanted to ride my bike and do something to make the world better.
I discovered Chooda, an organization that plans Bike Zambia every year. The goal of the ride is to empower women and eliminate the devastation of HIV in Zambia. I spent about six months raising money with a goal of $4000 for the beneficiaries. Each rider is required to do this as part of the experience where all the proceeds go to these recipients: World Bicycle Relief, Grassroot Soccer Zambia, and Zambia Health Education and Communications Trust (ZHECT)
According to WBR, “4.7 million children are living in poverty in Zambia. 375,000 Zambian children aged 7 to 14 aren't in school. To date, WBR has delivered more than 50,000 bicycles to Zambian students. With hundreds of thousands of children not in school, the need is still immense."
We toured the facilities and built bikes with the mechanics. The following days we visited beneficiaries ZHECT and Grassroot soccer tournament. They both empower youth to make positive HIV choices, get tested, and to take their medication. A big part of the programs is to stop the spread of HIV. The organizations both have sex education components.
Day 2: The first ride from Lusaka—Mazbuka. The roads are mix of tarmac and dirt, the Munali Hills, farms and sugar plantations. The children come running down the street chanting, “hello, how are you?" It is like a parade in rural Africa. The little ones all wave and smile. They have no shoes and American hand me down clothes. Their houses are roofless, and they don’t have electricity, but they are so happy.
The sugar plantations smell sweet, and there is a mist around from the water system. The dirt road is sticky and hard from the sugar runoff. The workers peddle by on their bicycles loaded with food, charcoal, and people.
The ride is challenging but worth it. The countryside views are pristine. This day of riding gives us all a chance to see the skill level of the group. The riders are five men and a French woman who regularly bike pack to the sea, another lady from Detroit and me. The majority of the group maintained a similar pace, but I struggled behind with Detroit.
Day 3: The following day was a route from Mazbuka—Monze. This was noted to be a challenging day for rural Africa, winding through countless villages, passing donkey carts, and meeting children along the way. The day was met with a dreadful anticipation over breakfasts. We were to ride 125 km of tarmac in a day by 3:30 pm. Everyone had felt the divide in skill level the previous day.
When I signed up, I understood all levels and speeds could ride. I never doubted my abilities, but I know I am not competing for the finish line. I was here to ride and help others.
We ride down from our campsite on the dirt path back to the main road. The plan is to all ride together at the same pace through town then break up into a fast group and a slow group. They chose me to lead since I am the most leisurely and everyone else will maintain.
We begin. Detroit opts to stay in the van. The rider behind me asks, “What gear are you in." He goes on to tell me at what speed I should maintain to reach our destination. He then is persisting that I sit out some laps so that we can get there on time even though the agreement was that all who didn't finish could get in the truck where ever they were at that point. He had a mission to get me off the ride, so he pushed, wanting me to speed up or sit out. Their goal was to eliminate me so they could ride fast and not be bothered by my difference.
I keep the pace, but I couldn’t handle the pressure. Tears stream down my face. I had an unwillingness to be defeated, but I also was not going to take the bullying. I quickly get out of the line to take my perspective place, in the van. The guide comes to me and offers solutions, and I agree to get dropped off 20k ahead. I depart from the group, and I ride with Yoram, the 1999 Zambian road champion, and escorted by George, the driver.
George sees my hurt and tells me he believed in me since day one when I would not let a big hill defeat me. He says I am fast and he has no doubt I can do it. They both tell me this is not a race; I am free. I can do whatever makes me happy this is my ride too.
I learn about their families, their home, and the country. It is a gentle country with little violence and no need for weapons. Everyone cares for one another.
George drops us ahead and thus: We ride.
Yoram takes my pace, and we push onward on the tarmac. He owns some land, and a home and a bike shop. We chat about his life and the culture here. The next township comes, and we stop at the local bike shop for a break and to meet the owner. He greets everyone. The people accept me and accommodate me. Their smiles are the freshness I need after the morning. We ride through the countryside in Zambia. The hills are mighty but not too overwhelming.
We made it through the tarmac. Yoram has motivated me all day he assures me that we are almost home. I follow his lines in the dirt, and I look up from my deep focus, my breath stops. The road is thick sand, and there are millions of butterflies that greet me.
It is butterfly season in Africa. They migrate there in the summer. They cover the sky and the fields on this dirt road. It is the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. It was the climax of the ride. I had accomplished the day, despite the mentality of the group.
I often say that my greatest strength is my biggest weakness, that I never give up despite the challenges before me. Today that paid off. The road was sandy and hard, but we keep pushing. Yoram followed the paths the locals made, and we whipped through them fast. There were many climbs and moments I had to walk my bike through deep sand.
We reached the camp which is the most enchanted Masuku Lodge. We arrived before the others.
I conquered the ride with encouragement and indefinite understanding which made me believe in myself.
Day 4: We ride from Monze—Choma to Lake Kariba. The ride was angulating hills through many villages. It was more of a farming community. There were carpenters, and the land was a bit lusher. The children looked healthier, and it seemed to be thriving. Every day of this ride I had new eyes for the world. The guy who pushed me apologized to me. He said they were eager to ride hard and fast and he was nominated to push me hard.
Day 5: The ride day Choma—Kalomo through the rural areas off-road, passing countless small villages untouched by tourism. We met with the locals and went inside the villages. They welcome us with an abundance of love.
Day 6: The last day in the saddle from Kalomo— Livingstone ending at Victoria Falls. We reflect on the day with a sunset cruise on the Zambezi river, staying at the Thorn Tree House and tented camps.
We all feel like we have known each other forever, not just met the week before. The trials brought us close, and the meeting of the organizations opened our eyes to a life we didn’t know existed.
The ride was more than just a trek across Africa. It was a soul changing journey in a world that changed us. We all went there to help others, but they all helped us see truths and realities you can’t find anywhere else.
The ride for me was so enriching because I got to see the real Zambia and learn about the people. I didn’t stay in a tainted group. My pace gave me an advantage and the others were happy with their experience.