Last night – as the sun was setting, illuminating the mountains – we kicked up dust with bicycle wheels, riding through the streets of the Kayamandi township; Bud and I were on bikes that we borrowed (a rarity for us,) and between us was our new friend Olwethu. She was riding her very own bike; a bike funded by our Epic Everyday project. A bike we personally delivered to her yesterday afternoon. Even though Olwethu just learned to ride a bicycle this week, she rode confidently over the uneven, unpaved road, weaving between the wiggly bodies of village children swarming, running boisterously between, around and behind us. The power of bicycles was tangible; when we would stop, they would grab hold of the handlebars, ring our bike bells, crawl on the racks and beg for rides. They hugged our arms and legs and held up their tiny hands in the universal ask for a high-five. But most of all they wanted to know when they were going to get bicycles of their own. The sounds and sights and smells of the village were overwhelming; the tiny dirty feet leaping over and through piles of trash as they hustled to greet us. The smell of the community bathrooms perched on the outskirts of colorful tin-sided homes that blanketed the hillsides. Four men slaughering a pig by machete in the streets, enough to feed several families for the coming weeks. The deep, expressive eyes of the children scanning our faces to connect to our emotions and understand us. Young girls carrying water back to their homes to make a simple dinner and take baths. Taxis and buses filled to the brim with people, horns beeping as they swerve between children playing in the streets. We stayed until the sun set — until, frankly, the streets of the community became unsafe — and so it wasn’t until we were in the silence of our Land Rover, hurdling towards Cape Town (and towards the start date of Cape Epic,) that I the chance to feel a swelling in my chest with all that has happened this past week.
For months now, you’ve heard me talking about preparing for Cape Epic; about training through the winter, about embracing the unknowns of doing something this big, and about how Bud + I became inspired to challenge ourselves to the race, to reach out to Trek and ask them to document our journey, and to ask all of you to help us to connect women – the world over – via the power of bicycles. But that’s been all talk, really — and in a matter of hours (or, rather, two days spent on a few airplanes), this project became about action; doing a big mountain bike race, yes, but about doing something larger, more emotional and more powerful than that.
Flying across the world sounds glamorous, and in some ways it is. In other ways – the where-am-I-what-am-I-feeling-is-it-breakfast-or-dinner feelings aren’t. Bouncing in the Land Rover inland to Stellenbosch from Cape Town, we felt transplanted, frazzled and off-kilter. We were able to recover from lack of sleep, and sync our circadian rhythms over the next days, but I never really did get over the where-am-I-in-the-world feeling. And I’m ok with that discomfort. No jet-setting plane ticket could make me feel more aware of a global human condition. None of the hours I spent thinking about packing lists, nor the stress I put on fitting in strenuous training rides could have prepared me for the emotions I was having and was about to have as I watched the pieces of this project literally fall into place before my eyes as I realized just how fortunate I am in the world, and how much of an impact even a small amount of effort on my part can have on communities and people the world over. I wouldn’t trade anything for the opportunity for my being to be shifted/shuffled/jostled awake – in the world – in the way that this project in South Africa has.
In a matter of five days, the flurry of passionate emails, enthusiastic late night Skype calls and intricate text messages that connected Bud and I to our friends at Qhubeka and our other South African partners in this project went from being a bread-crumb-trail to a living, breathing pathway that put the power of bicycles in the hands of forty young women (and a couple of young men,) in the Kayamandi township, on the outskirts of Cape Town. We woke up early to wander through makeshift greenhouses of trees, grown sustainably by men, women and children so that they could be traded for Qhubeka bicycles and then planted to preserve and restore the degraded natural environment here. We spent afternoons touring the school in Kayamandi where young children from kindergarten to high school are finding a safe haven to learn, grow and become engaged, educated and worldly community members, determined to rise out of a township culture plagued by addiction, lack of self-worth, and stricken with extreme poverty. We walked the streets of the township, seeing the diverse and basic living conditions that the 50,000 residents of this township are experiencing; a majority of the tin-sided homes here don’t have running water, are lucky to have a bare bulb or two to illuminate their living spaces. We met community leaders, budding entrepreneurs, and colleagues from Qhubeka who are not only inspired by bicycles, but dedicated to connecting communities with them. The overwhelming enthusiasm I’ve felt within me these months is dwarfed by the oceans of enthusiasm and energy these counterparts have for this cause, and we couldn’t have dug as deeply into the Kayamandi community as we have, to meet the people we’ve met, to feel the impact of even our relative small amount of work, or to acknowledge the progress our work will create without them.
Nearly all of the bicycles our Epic Everyday project have funded will be given to members of the Kayamandi community; we delivered the first 10 bicycles to young, high-performing high school students who will use their bikes to advance their education, make quick work of their daily chores, and begin to build lives in areas directly outside Kayamandi where they can begin to connect, comprehend and impact the world outside. Girls like Olwethu, will use their new bicycles to fetch water faster (her home doesn’t have a running supply), to spend less time in transit to school from the two tin-walled rooms she calls home perched at the top of the hillsides of Kayamandi. Later in the month, more of the bikes funded by your donations to Epic Everyday will help a Kayamandi entrepreneur start a small tour company to show others what this tight-knit community is like first hand, by bicycle. Even later in the year, 20 more students – who have made exceptional marks in school- will receive bicycles.
We dropped Olwethu off at her home before leaving Kayamandi; all of her neighbors followed us into the tiny two rooms that make up the house, where her new bicycle now takes up a majority of the open living space, and they watched on we gave her a big hug, and told her we hoped that she enjoyed her new bicycle. She promised us that she would. We came to Africa to help this little girl and others like her; to give her something – a object carrying a sense of freedom and empowerment – that she might not have been able to achieve on her own. We did that, I think. But apparently, we also came to Africa so that she could give us something – an untangible awareness – that we couldn’t achieve on our own. All of us want to do good in the world, and in each moment we have the opportunity to do so; no matter who we are -what we have or don’t have -our words, actions and authentic emotions plant seeds. Those seeds sprout into something even if we don’t get to watch them grow; I won’t get to watch Olwethu ride her bike with the wind in her hair, I won’t get to see where it takes her, and where it inspires her to go. Where it inspires the people around her to go.
We woke up in Cape Town this morning, in a lovely house with big windows and lots of light. In 48 hours, we’ll start the 650km journey towards the Cape Epic finish line. though I feel like my heart has been pumping already for a week. Knowing that Olwethu is waking up this morning, able to move more freely in the world and that her freedom of movement and humble determination are rolling about the streets of Kayamandi even more quickly and powerfully before has planted a seed in me. One that makes the insurmountable task of completing the Epic seem, almost, easy.
The funding campaigns for Epic Everyday will remain open through the month, and until the film made about our experience goes live later this spring from Trek Bikes. If you haven’t done so already and are interested, here are all the ways you can help to support our project and the young people of Kayamandi:
You can order one of our replica race jerseys here, all proceeds go towards World Bicycle Relief.
You can share our fundraising page.
AND you can…
A TREMENDOUS thank you to the folks at Qhubeka and VisionAfrika here in South Africa, the good people at Trek Bicycles and Oakley who have made our project possible (and to Jeff Kennel for the images in this post used to illustrate our overwhelming experience in Kayamandi.. And, thank you – to all of you – for your overwhelming support, for reading, for enjoying and for following along. : ) xo from South Africa! – L