/ 14 July 2009

Cycles of life

When Finnish tourist Petra Haapio first visited Chipata, she saw hundreds of cyclists — men and women — entering town at breakneck speed. ”I thought it was an unfair rally with men and women competing for honours in the same category,” she said.

”Then someone explained that it’s the normal lifestyle here.” And so it is. Uniquely in Zambia, bicycles have become an important asset for most families in Chipata, providing the means to earn a decent living and an excellent way of life.

Known as Fort Jameson in the colonial era, the ”bicycle city” of Chipata is 550km east of the capital, Lusaka, and 20km west of neighbouring Malawi. Since Zambia’s independence in 1964, the town has become a hive of activity centred on agriculture.

But it has a deplorable road network. Apart from the tarred Umodzi highway, there is only a 1.5km tarred stretch off the highway to Kapata, which is the main market.

And, unlike other parts of the country where the topography is muddy, Chipata’s climate enables the ground to be well suited to bicycles.

Chipata’s history is linked to bikes in another way too. The town has the country’s largest bicycle factory, the Luangwa Bicycle Industry.

One of the plant’s more affordable products, the Eagle Bicycle, has earned the people’s trust, making it the bike of choice for Chipata residents.

So, with only a few white-collar jobs in Chipata, most people are involved in agriculture and use their bikes to negotiate the poor roads to get their farm produce to the market.

Residents have also turned their bikes into taxis. Unlike Lusaka, Livingstone and Ndola, where people depend mainly on taxis and buses, in Chipata public buses have been relegated to inter-district routes, whereas taxis are considered a secondary option only — mostly when a cyclist is not handy.

So, although some might wake up at dawn, Chipata cyclists are by then hyperactive, having started as early as 4am, loading their bikes with basketsful of vegetables, fruits and other farm produce.

Some cycle more than 100km a day from outlying areas. By 5pm departing cyclists signal the end of business in town.

”This is an asset and my family’s source of income,” says Yandikani Phiri, a father of three. ”Without it [the bicycle] being taken care of and kept in good condition, my life and that of my family becomes difficult.”

And James Ngulube has contracted three young men to operate his ”bicycle taxis”, earning him about 200 000 kwacha (about R320). ”Some days you earn even more than that,” says the beaming 40-year-old.

Chipata residents modify their bikes according to purpose. A bicycle meant to ferry people has a comfortable carrier replacing the original one and peddles protruding from either side of the rear hub where passengers can rest their feet.

Bicycles for carrying merchandise are mounted with giant carriers and their front tyres are strengthened with extra spokes.

Owners treat their bikes with a brotherly love — like pets. And wives are expected to play a complementary role by ensuring that no child is allowed to use the bicycle unless it is to benefit the family.

The heavy dependence on bicycles has created an overwhelming passion for owning one — by hook or by crook. Bicycle theft is rife in Chipata and losing one is a devastating experience.

Even the most forgiving people who have had their bikes stolen have been pushed to seek interventions from a ng’anga (sangoma).

So Chipata town grows steadily towards city status — but the number of bicycles seems to be following suit. The fear is that they may soon outnumber the population.

Sylvester Mwale is a journalism student and a contributor to the Times of Zambia


M&G Newspaper