A bamboo bicycle ride: from Lusaka to London

By on December 3, 2012
My clock alarmed at 4:59 in the morning. It was the best time of the day to start rolling from the part of the world where I was in – Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, a city that easily heats up to thirty nine degrees celsius high.
I have long wanted to pedal across Africa. I just did not fi nd the right time and a good cause.   Six years later, after the launch of Sport2build, an independent apolitical Italian organization I co-founded with Serena Borsani to empower underprivileged youth using sport as tool, an opportunity presented itself.  Chieftness Nkomesha Mukamambo II, traditional Zambian leader and administrator of a vast land in Lusaka the size of New Jersey,  asked us to help build a school at one of her villages.  I and my partners at Sport2build, Serena and Giorgia, were very excited to be a part of the project and thus, accepted the challenge.  The mission was to reach London to participate in the Paralympic Games using sport as a tool for social change and raise money to build a new sports and art school for children.  To us, there was nothing far better than riding a custom-made bamboo bike crafted in Zambia to represent our spirit in motion. Not only was the bike innovative, eco-friendly and economical about US$700 market value), it was also built to soak up the harshness of ramshackle African roads.

About two hundred people came to the special departure event on June 15, 2012 at Chongwe, the Royal Palace of the Chieftness.  The closing remarks asking God to protect and keep us safe from harm by ferocious animals and prowlers on the road, was preceeded by songs and prayers.  Today I can say that that in fact did work very well! From Chongwe to London I cycled a total of about 8,400 kilometers, pedaling my way through Malawi from Moocha, on to Lundazi.  In Zambia,  most of my supporters on the road are children.  Children on the streets shout out "mzungu, mzungu", a vernacular term for "caucasian",  as they see me pass.

After doing a 4,500- kilometer trip to Malawi, I headed off to Tanzania.  On the roads of Iringa leading to Arusha, there was everything a cyclist did not expect to encounter: an orgy of stones, muddy land, a bumpy road and a cobra.  But  both of us were too busy minding our own business to scare each other away.  I envy though its agility as it managed to float above the sand while my tyres sunk in deep because of the pannier’s weight.

I reckoned that the best time to cross borders is generally in the evening when there is less crowd. Doing Arusha to Namanga and then Namanga to Nairobi was relatively easy. But the route from Nairobi to Ethiopia via Isiolo-Moyale that I originally intended to take posed some danger with Somali bandits going on a foray.  Heeding the advice of the police not to tempt fate,  I gave up the idea of pedaling across the border and instead hopped on the Moyale Express, an 18-hour express bus ride to Addis Ababa.  It was the most stressful ride I had ever made with the front, middle and rear rows of the bus shaking almost violently, dislodging passengers from their seats each time it traversed through bumpy zones.  There were children crying,  passengers groaning, yet the bus continued on determined to arrive at the destination on time.   

I stayed in Ethiopia the longest pedaling 1,683 kilometers in full force through rain and cold.  A cheering group of children I met on the way kept me company, singing and clapping their hands as I passed.  

On finally reaching Metema/Gallabat, Sudan’s rope-bordered checkpoint, I stopped for authorities to check my belongings from laptop to camera including memory cards!  Drinking and eating well is fundamental when you are in the the desert.  I made sure I carried on the road plenty of water, low-fat yoghurt, bread, biscuits and at times not-so-professional-tasting-but-rich-in-salt chips to nibble on as I continued the journey.  From one o’clock in the afternoon onwards,  the temperature in Sudan hits an intolerable level making you want to take an invigorating cold shower.  Sudan is very organized.   Huge ceramic jars filled with water are installed next to bus stops, petrol stations, or simply in front of shops for easy access by passers-by for a quick cool splash and the faithful who want to do ablutions.  These jars come with a steel cup used to pour water all over the body for a soothing twenty-minute moment.  Leaving Sudan was not easy. The community was very hospitable. I arrived always on time for the Iftar, a Ramadan evening meal hosted by every village to which I was frequently invited. Over colourful carpets, we shared meals and drinks like lime juice, karkade (hibiscus punch) and ilu mur, a tea prepared with seven local spices rehydrating the body after a long exposure to the desert heat.  

Egypt has little in common with Sub Saharan Africa.  The country has a mixed European and African influence.  Everywhere, there were multi-storey houses. I took the Nile to Cairo route.  Experiencing the traffic congestion in Cairo after a 7,000-kilometer feat reminded me of my Milanese origin where traffic is a dance.  I had fun taking zigzag turns in between cars and buses, flinging myself into a petrol station and leaving behind twenty cars in one go. On my day of rest before flying to Malpensa where I continued my journey to London via Moncenisio, I took a leisure walk to Tahrir Square where families enjoyed ice cream while visiting shops that are open until late.

Upon reaching Europe, the bike started to give me problems.  I visited four mechanics, replaced faulty bike parts including the rear wheel. It was only after parking the bike on a ferry in Calais when I indeed realized that I had virtually arrived! By the afternoon of August 28, I finally made it to the Tower Bridge, perfectly in time for the opening ceremony of the Paralympics.  A journey like this can be likened to a drug.  It is never easy to switch back to default mode when the head is spinning around thinking already about the next journey.  British author Stephen Hawking’s famous words remind me to “look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose,  and life is empty without it. If you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there. Don’t throw it away”.

Matteo Sametti is an Italian sportsman and co-founder of Sport2build, an Italian non-profit organization helping underprivileged children in the world through the use of sports. Sport2build is actively seeking support and funding for projects benefiting underprivileged children.  Get involved.  www.sport2build.org

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