When Roman Posolda set up his Bikes for Africa project in Ostrava in 2012, he had no idea how well it would take root in this country and how long it would run for. More than a decade later, the organization is still going strong, attracting new volunteers and expanding its vision. I spoke with Roman about where the project is heading and what inspired him to send bikes to children in Africa.
“It is something that is very much part of my whole life –it is not just about the starting date which was in 2012 when we registered the Bicycles for Africa organization in the Czech Republic. The following year we started sending bicycles to Gambia. But as I said, bicycles have been a big part of my life since childhood.”
But what made you decide to send them to Africa?
“Some years before we launched the project in the Czech Republic I lived in Great Britain with my family, in Gloucestershire, and part of my work for the Waldorf community there was working as a volunteer for the Jolly Rider organization which was sending bicycles from England to Gambia. And the experience touched me deeply, not just in England but also in Gambia which I visited with them. So inspired by that and my life-long love of bicycles I started this project in the Czech Republic – which actually mirrors what I did there.”
Can you explain briefly how it works?
“People from the Czech Republic and also from Slovakia donate their used bicycles for children in Gambia. We refurbish them, prepare them to be shipped and ship them to Gambia in containers. We have three coordinators in Gambia who receive the containers and dispatch them to partner schools in rural Gambia, not the coastal areas, and that is where the bicycles get a new lease on life.
“At the beginning, our mission was to send whole bicycles to schoolchildren, to help them to reach their school and get an education, because the distances they have to cover are really great. Some children have to walk ten kilometers to school every day, ten there and ten back. But now we do something different we ship the bicycles in parts and the children are taught how to put them together.”
How many children have you helped in this way? How many schools do you cooperate with?
“When I count all partner schools since the beginning, I think we have collaborated with 80 schools from around Gambia, apart from the coastal area because that area is very busy, the traffic is very busy and it would be difficult and even dangerous for children to ride a bike there.”
So, who decided which schools you would work with, where the bike will be distributed?
“The locals. We cooperate with the Gambian Ministry of Education, with the local government and regional directorates. So, by cooperating with them we are able to reach schools where children have the greatest difficulties with travel –where they have to cover the longest distances. That is the main criteria when it comes to who will benefit from the project.”
And what has the response from the public here been like? Is it difficult to keep up a steam of donations after all these years?
“When we started, we had no idea how it would go. But it is a kind of positive wave. It is a Czecho- Slovakian project and there are a great many cyclists in these two countries. When people buy new bikes, they are happy to donate their old ones. They often find out what we do through social media TV and radio and we connect. We explain what we are doing and show them how the project has progressed. And people here are very open to helping others.
“Of course, now a lot of the assistance is channelled to Ukraine because we all know what is going on there, but they are also happy to help Gambian children by donating bicycles, by helping us financially, especially the partners of the project. What we also do within the Bikes for Africa project is that we refurbish bicycles that are donated to us and sell them as second-hand bicycles to people here in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia and thanks to the finances raised, we are able to support the project’s operation here and also in Gambia.”
So how many Gambian children have you helped altogether over those years?
“So far we have helped roughly 15,000 children in Gambia.”
I understand you organise other events here as well, like building snowmen for Africa at Czech schools –is that so?
“Yes, that is another fundraising tool, but there is something more to it. It is also about involving Czech children in the assistance, letting them know how children of their age live in other parts of the world. So yes, they are bringing support but they are also receiving information and experience, they are learning to be engaged.”
And there is a Run for Gambia every year?
“Yes, just now I was in touch with a school in Otrokovice which is very active every year and they will be running again this coming September.”
I also heard that you organize outings to Gambia for people who have donated bikes to meet the children who are beneficiaries-is that so?
“That’s true. We have great cooperation with a travel agency from Brno which sent some of these people to Gambia and we were able to show them not only Gambia itself but the project and the partner schools. Unfortunately, during the Covid period we had to stop these trips, but hopefully next year we will return to them.”
How many times have you been there yourself?
“More than 20 times.”
Was there any particularly rewarding moment for you – when you thought, our work is really making a big difference here?
“Thank you for asking that. It is a feeling that is deep in my heart. I have a deep connection with that country. I love Gambia and I love the country through its people. I love helping the local children and also the local people. Because we are giving bicycles to the children, but we are also sharing know-how on how to repair them with the local people.
“When a bicycle mechanic comes to you and says Thank you so much for this knowledge. You gave me a tool. I was able to marry, to support a wife and children that is something really special. You can see that the bicycle connects us – that it is giving a life to others. That is very deep and meaningful. When we go to these schools and talk with the children after classes about how they live it is also meaningful. They do not have free time and hobbies like kids here, after school they look after the cattle or help their parents work in the field. Learning more about how these children live is also very moving.”
Do you remember any particular child?
“Yes, I remember a boy called Bilali. He didn’t go to school because the school was too far away. But there was a principal in Karantaba village who went to speak to the father saying “Look, Bilali is very smart. Let him go to school and you will see what will happen. I will take him to my house. He will be living near the school and you will see the result.” The father agreed and Bilali is now in high school and is a member of the school parliament. He was chosen as the sole representative of the school to attend a meeting on the Coast with representatives of other schools. So, he is amazing. And every meeting with Bilali is always special for me.”
You are clearly the heart and soul of this project. Do you work with volunteers as well?
“We have a core group of workers who manage the project. There are five of us, but we are very open to others and greatly appreciate help with dismantling bicycles, because, as I said, we do not sell whole bikes, we dismantle the donated bikes and send frames and parts. Because through that the children in Gambia can learn how to assemble their own bike –that’s an added value in the project now. So, we are open to volunteers. Young people are very useful in helping us load the containers, but we welcome helpers of any age, during work hours Monday to Friday. We will be happy to share our story with them.”
The project has been operating for over a decade now –what are your plans for the future?
“Of course, the key thing is to donate bicycles to needy children. But there is also the shared know-how. After ten years, we are now building a base for the project in Gambia itself. That will be a practical school. A quarter of the building is completed and this October we plan to assemble bicycles there with the children. At the Bicycle Centre will teach the local children how to repair bicycles, how to assemble bicycles and how to build bicycles –because there are other technologies. It does not necessarily have to be a metal frame that needs to be shipped from Europe to Africa. There are bamboo bicycles which can be built from locally grown bamboo. So we will need only some parts and it will reduce the load in the container. So we want to open this centre for the local children and also for the adults and they will be able to gain new knowledge, they will be able to get a job and they will be able to fix bicycles for the local people.”