It's not about the bike
Getting kids on bikes is not about exercise, its about giving them a real chance at a better life, through education.
The Diepsloot Mountain Bike Academy (DMA), says founder André Ross, really isn’t about mountain-biking. It’s actually not about mountain-biking (MTBing) at all, although the biking does come into it.
Mostly, says Ross, he and the nine other trustees involved in the project are aiming to alleviate poverty by instilling a sense of nobility and hope in the kids involved in the project.
“Nothing gives someone a sense of self-confidence like sport,” he says. And mountain biking is a tough sport. It has high barriers to entry in terms of the costs, it’s a high-risk sport and the physical demands it places on cyclists are arduous.
Ross says it’s a good analogy for life: it’s tough, it’s demanding and no matter how much you prepare, a simple mechanical error out of your control can ruin your entire plan and cost you a race.
Northern Farm is a Johannesburg Water-owned property just north of the city, on the outskirts of Diepsloot that is home to recreational facilities including a host of mountain bike trails.
It’s a popular destination for weekend cyclists who don’t mind dodging newbie horse riders and occasional herds of recalcitrant cattle on their rides. The recreational side of the farm is managed by the Northern Farm Recreational User Group (NFRUG), which builds and maintains the biking and hiking trails, among other things.
Simon Nash, a mountain biker who was involved in the NFRUG, started the Diepsloot MTB Academy about seven years ago. Initially he ran an eight-week programme teaching children to ride and giving them access to bikes – walk in, cycle out.
Some stayed under Nash’s wing – current rising star William Mokgopo was one, Rosalia Kubjane is another. At 19 she completed the grueling Absa Cape Epic, was a Central Gauteng youth champ and now rides for the Exxaro Development Academy. There are a few others of Nash’s class who stayed, and succeeded, says Ross.
Starting a nonprofit
The programme hit difficulties three years ago. As a rider, Ross and a friend noticed things with the children at the farm seemed pretty disorganised. It turned out the children were running it on their own.
Deciding that they could help, Ross and some of his colleagues went off and registered an NPO – Red Apple Book Club – intending to teach the children MTB skills, but more importantly, to teach them the skills they needed to develop as people and improve their lives.
Children attend an eight-week MTB training programme and have the option to stay on with the academy once that is complete. There are currently 55 children attending regular classes, and 70 on the academy’s books. It has only 43 bikes and some of them are in desperate need of maintenance, so one of the things on its to do list is to invest in more equipment, which means raising funds.
DMA is also planning to roll out a BMX track in conjunction with the City of Johannesburg, which is providing the funding, so that it can get younger children (nine to 14 years) and more children (another 50 to 100) involved.
The children’s ages range from 10 to 22 years at present, but the bulk are between 12 to 17, Ross says.
DMA has a racing team – the Diepsloot MTB Club – and currently has 16 youngsters competing at club, provincial and national level including in races such as the Absa Cape Epic, Nissan Trailseeker series and the Spur School Cross Country series.
Children need to stay in school and pass to keep riding for the team.
“The pass rate is low on average, but we’re there to help and we get the older children to help the younger ones with homework,” Ross says.
Maths and English tutoring happens on Saturdays and Sundays, and classes are compulsory.
“It’s not a substitute for school, but we think English and maths are the two subjects you need to be proficient in if you’re going to succeed,” he says.
Ross and his fellow trustees also run a programme for girls called Girl Ignite, which runs for three hours every Saturday afternoon.
It’s a two-year module and covers all those things such as grooming, career guidance and self-care that the girls often aren’t taught at home. Class kicks off with yoga, Ross says, and is run by the older women.
“They’ve created vision boards with their career objectives mapped out, and they’re also planning a market day.
“The African girl is the most marginalised of all,” he notes, “so we put them first over the boys. We give them food first, we give them t-shirts first when we get new kit. The boys don’t like it, but we’re trying to show them they need to protect their girls because they’re not looked after enough, and they’re starting to do that.
“We’ve noticed, on race days, the boys come get bikes and go back and fetch the girls, rather than letting them walk to us on their own.”
The academy is run mostly by volunteers, and at least one of them is at the project every day. Day to day activities are run by William Mokgopo, as facilities manager; Tebogo Mokwatlo, who has been trained as a mechanic maintains the equipment (and is now studying electrical engineering thanks to the academy) and an admin assistant. They’re all from Nash’s first class, Ross says.
The academy is seeing some success both as a youth development initiative and a MTB club. Two of its 14-year-old girls recently got scholarships to go to the American International School as a result of scholarships provided by Joel Stransky’s Lumohawk Foundation and Student Sponsorship Programme.
Hardlife Tendani has just started working under executive chef David Higgs at the Saxon Hotel. Higgs met him on the Absa Cape Epic and was so impressed he has taken him under his wing.
It’s nice, says Ross, to know the grounding they get at the academy carries through even when the children aren’t under the watchful eye of trustees and tutors.
Three of the racing team participated in the Africa Youth Games in Botswana in May. Lebo Pebane (17) brought home a silver medal, something of an achievement for a girl who was a high school drop-out and a teenage pregnancy statistic.
One of the boys came fifth, says Ross, “there are rats and sewage running in front of his house.” Most of the team don’t have access to bikes except on weekends and they don’t have the nutritional and funding support most teams have either, making their achievements even more notable.
The academy has plans for a computer centre, enterprise development programme and, Ross says, they want to grow into a real centre for the youth of Diepsloot.
“We never make unrealistic promises,” he says, “they get enough disappointment at home. We want to create somewhere they can play and learn and expand other areas of themselves within the rules and boundaries of a safe environment.”
So far, he and his team are doing an amazing job.
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