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FEATURE: Motorbikes in the developing world

Riders for Health use motorbikes to provide people in outlying areas with much needed healthcare
Riders for Health use motorbikes to provide people in outlying areas with much needed healthcare
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Monday, 16, Jun 2014 02:23

by Laura Hastings

MotorbikeTimes looks into a very different kind of motorbike culture, in Sub-Saharan Africa

It goes without saying that motorbikes play a vital role in the developing world. In countries where viable road networks do not exist, and the nearest hospital to a person's home could be hundreds of miles away, the motorbike becomes a lifeline as opposed to a leisure vehicle.

Places such as Sub-Saharan Africa - south of the Sahara Desert - where charities like Riders for Health and Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO) operate are amongst these territories. MotorbikeTimes recently spoke with several workers in countries such as Lesotho, Malawi and Eritrea to get a sense of the integral role motorbikes play and how they help contribute to the lives of those who need it most .

Mahali Hlasa, country director for Riders for Health in Lesotho, a landlocked Kingdom, completely surrounded by South Africa, is fully aware of the important role motorbikes play in ensuring medical treatment reaches those who need it most. Working for the charity since 1991, when she became the first female health worker to train with them, she remembers the experience fondly: "It was wonderful," she begins. "I had three very experienced men led by [executive director], Barry Coleman, and they were very patient with me. I learned to ride and trained as a trainer in two weeks; I never looked back."

Not only was she provided with her own transport, but the charity also provided Mahali with the confidence to reach out to others and train them as diligently as she had been herself. "It felt good to have my own transport and to do my work without any problems; many female health workers were inspired and came for training. It also felt good to help other women overcome their fear to ride and become very good riders."

Mahali's training was invaluable to her job, it is truly difficult to imagine the healthcare situation that she was, and still is, working within: "I was an outreach health worker employed by the ministry for health, and I was based in the Berea district. My main responsibility was prevention and control of spread of communicable diseases in my area of jurisdiction," she says. "I had to engage in school health programmes, health education to the communities at health centre and village level, sanitary inspections of water sources and their protection, business and residential inspections, house to house visits and training of community health workers on disease prevention and control." The list seems endless, but, more importantly, so too did the medical issues sweeping across her small country.

"The main problems at that time were TB, HIV and AIDS and several disease outbreaks," Mahali explains "The bike became handy as I had to travel to the villages, schools and several health centres, to be able to deliver health services." In fact, Mahali used to visit around five villages a week, during which time she would try and see as many people as possible, depending on their prevailing health predicaments. "Sometimes I would travel for an hour or two to get to a village, because of the bad road conditions, but generally I got around quite easily."

It is clear that the people in these outlying villages would simply not have received healthcare without the bike that charity, Riders for Health, provided.

Riders was started by Andrea and Barry Coleman in the late 1980s, when they realised that people were dying in areas of Africa, simply because they were not being reached with healthcare. So-called experts said this was because it was impossible to keep vehicles running in Africa. The Colemans resolved to do something about this, realising that motorbikes could be the answer to the problem. Today, the charity continues to thrive under the ethos that it is unacceptable that millions of people die because they do not receive the healthcare they need when the means to reach them certainly exists.

Mahali's current position, as country director in Lesotho, means that she is constantly able to ensure charity resources are being directed to where they are most needed: "I liaise with the ministry of health and other partners to make sure that our intervention is always relevant and addresses the concerns of the organisations that we work together with," she smiles. I represent 'Riders' in all of the in-country forums for both local and international organisations as well as government."

Considering Mahali was a mobile healthcare worker for many years prior to taking on her executive position, it's no surprise that she is well versed as to why motorbikes are so crucial within the healthcare sphere: "Motorbikes are much cheaper than 4x4 vehicles and are able to get to places where four wheeled vehicles are not able to reach," she says. "The rider has independence to plan their work and attend all the sessions they plan because there is no competition among other health workers in the district regarding who gets the vehicle first; everyone is allocated their own bike." This statement alone, reinforces the severity of the system in place prior to the introduction of the trusty two wheelers now utilised, described by Mahali as being "very convenient. It makes it easy to cover all areas of work planned for any period. Fuel consumption is not bad at all and bikes are very easy to maintain and do safety checks on daily, to avoid breakdowns."

It is apparent that motorbikes are certainly a necessity when navigating Sub-Saharan Africa, however not everyone has had such a positive experience when using them, as Dr. Cliona O' Gallchoir, lecturer in English literature at University College Cork, Ireland, can attest. Cliona volunteered with VSO for over a year, from September 2007 to December 2008, and was based in Eritrea where she worked as an English Methodology Trainer - a walk in the park when compared to the motorbiking required as part of the job.

"I took lessons in Dublin with a great instructor, who helped me to get beyond paralyzing terror to some kind of basic competence," she begins. "My final test involved riding around a small area on my own, which I got a 'certificate of competence' for, though I never passed a full test."

Upon arriving in Eritrea, reality struck, as Cliona soon established that riding in her new destination was going to prove trickier than back home in Ireland. "When I arrived I was shocked to see that we were going to ride trail bikes, because we needed to be able to go off-road. They're really high off the ground, and I am only 5' 2''," she continues. "Every time I stopped I would have to slide sideways off the seat in order to get my foot on the ground, which was tricky. Luckily,after a while, VSO ordered a smaller bike for me, which really helped," the lecturer says, relieved.

Cliona was attached to a local Eritrean education office, which had charge of about 20 schools, most of which were not accessible by bus and some not actually served by roads. The use of a bike to make the trek was imperative. "My job involved visiting schools, assessing the needs of the teachers and then coming back to deliver training. So I would have been very restricted in the schools I could work with if I hadn't used the bike."

Cliona recounts many "adventures" that happened while on the bike, but the nerves of shooting across surface conditions unlike any she had ever experienced seems to be the main recollection: "I never really lost the fear I felt when on the motorbike. You're very vulnerable on a bike and it's really quite easy to fall off," she begins. "I have a very vivid memory of trying to cross a very wide, sandy dry river bed and I just couldn't manage to go fast enough to maintain my momentum, because I was scared of going too fast and not being to negotiate the bank on the other side. So I just kept falling over in the middle," she laughs.

"Then a young man passed by and helped me to lift the bike and push it through the sand to the other side. He clearly thought I was very strange, but I was very grateful for his help. As I was for the man with the donkey cart who helped me to bring the bike back home on another occasion," she laughs harder.

Despite having a slightly volatile relationship with the bike, Cliona is quick to add that it was a necessary bond to forge: "Teachers in Eritrea, as in many developing countries, are terribly underpaid and often very demoralised. They are effectively ordered by the ministry to go to whichever school needs teachers in a given year, often in areas they have never been to before" she states empathetically. "The idea that they are then going to be excluded from whatever training the ministry is offering because of that remote location seems very unfortunate and unfair. So I was really glad to be able to visit some of those schools."

Sadly, since Cliona's trip to Eritrea with VSO, further operations in the country have been abandoned owing to government interference.

From speaking with Mahali and Cliona, it is quite clear that motorbikes are underpinning the fragile healthcare and education systems in Sub-Saharan Africa.

To find out more about the charities, visit Riders' website or VSO's website

Find more photos like this on MotorbikeTimes

Photos courtesy of Riders for Health/ Tom Oldham

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