A year ago I reconnected with an old friend and former colleague who, due to a hereditary disease, progressively lost feeling in his legs from his forties. Now in his sixties, he’s been confined to a wheelchair for the past several years. Having been very active before, particularly in cycling, this was initially a very depressing experience – until he encountered someone riding a hand cycle.
By the time we reconnected he was able to do more than 100 kilometers a day. We did a ride from Arlington to Frederick in May 2022 with a group of standard and adaptive cyclists together, which I found incredibly inspiring. He told me he hoped the next year to do a cross-Africa journey, something that had been his dream since being a Peace Corps volunteer during the 1980s. He needed a team of both hand and foot cyclists, and I, facing WBG retirement this coming September, needed one of the once-a-decade crazy challenges I have tended to take on.
With the kind permission of my spouse I started making plans to spend two months in southern Africa. I also started looking more into cycling clubs and groups working with disabled persons in the five countries we would pass through: Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Eswatini and Mozambique. I was greatly aided in this by institutions that have become part of the SME Finance Forum network I have built since 2016.
Vusi, our inspiring South African para-athlete, at the end of five grueling days from Johannesburg suburbs to the Eswatini border
From 12 May to 19 June a group of two paracyclists and two-wheel cyclists, joined by a social media specialist (and avid mountain biker) crossed southern Africa, from Swakopmund on the Atlantic Coast of Namibia, to Maputo on the Indian Ocean in Mozambique – a distance
of over 2300 kilometers. We were were joined by paracyclists from Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, and by two wheeled cyclists from each country in the region. Bidii Yetu, which means “our resilience” in Kiswahili, sought to demonstrate that disability doesn’t mean inability – whether it has to do with inability to walk, with age (three of us were over 65), or other difference. We also sought to draw attention to the importance of sport and play for persons with disabilities.
Taking on Siteki’s mountain in Eswatini with the KuseKhaya Cycling Club (note 3 two wheel cyclists pushing the paracyclist up)
I knew that, as a two-wheeled cyclist, I would be needed to help my paracyclist colleagues over the tough hills. However, what I didn’t realize was how much I would need them to teach me about what it takes to bring true accessibility to all, and about how far my colleagues could go with just a tiny bit of support. I watched our eight Botswana colleagues, who received their hand-bikes only in March, not only manage to do over 25 km per day with us, but also handle bush camping in the Kalahari Desert en route. I watched our South African colleague, a former elite runner and cyclist made almost complete quadriplegic through a terrible road accident in February 2020, complete 5 days at 70 km/day with us, and absolutely refuse to use our support vehicles for any of that journey, even though he’d had only limited road experience. He already is planning a new fundraiser distance challenge for July, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the Paralympics in a few years’ time.
Our Bidii Yetu adventure also helped link these groups in the different countries, and the cycling and paracycing teams. We will use some of the funds we are collecting to reinforce these ties, and to provide further resources to promote adaptive cycling in all the countries.
Desert camping with our paracyclists from Botswana Council for the Disabled
From the Atlantic to the finish on the Indian Ocean in Maputo
Much more on the Bidii Yetu experience can be found by following Bidii Yetu 2023 on Instagram and Facebook, or by visiting the website at http://bidiiyetu-nolimits.org/. We are still raising money to provide follow on support to the disabled persons’ organizations we connected to along the way, and donations are welcome at https://www.spotfund.com/story/2bc848a1-5732-41bc-a043-00f8868f1c05
*The author worked at IFC from 2005 to 2023. His most recent assignment has been to build the SME Finance Forum, created by the G20 countries and managed by IFC. The SME Finance Forum is a center for knowledge exchange, networking and public-private dialogue and has built a network of financial sector institutions – banks, non-banks, fintechs, development banks, etc. – to improve access to financial services for small business around the world. The network now contains over 250 members and partners in virtually every country in the world.
KEYWORDS Africa, cycling, disabilities, inclusion