Monday, July 23, 2007

Tour de Milenge

“Awe [no], I will leave the Honda here, Ndefwya [I want] to borrow a bicycle. Naissa maillo [I’m coming tomorrow]” In a mix of Bemba and English, I try to hammer out the details of my trade with Mr. Mwape. I’m in the village of Changwe-Lungo, and I’m in the process of trading my motorcycle for a bicycle. Confused? Let’s rewind a little bit….tib elttil a dniwer s’teL (if you have a better way to indicate rewinding text, I’d love to hear it!)

I’ve spent three weeks away from Milenge, attending the EWB quarterly meeting, and helping WaterAid facilitate a training workshop for sanitation technicians in one of the other districts in Luapula. I finally arrive back home late on a Friday night, and am thrilled to be here. I spend most of Saturday and Sunday with the family. They too are thrilled that I’m home. After being away for so long, I am curious as to how our project is progressing, specifically the construction around the district. I decide that on Monday I will spend all day in the field, visiting every site. It’s an ambitious goal to say the least. My plan is only to see each site, ask a few questions, talk to a few people, but only spend a short amount of time at each.

Monday morning comes and I’m up early, determined to revive my morning running routine, which has been suffering lately. I arrive at the office, greet everyone (which takes quite a while because I’ve been gone for so long), gas up the bike and manage to hit the road (dirt path) by 9:30. Not too bad. If I can keep a steady pace I should be able to make it back home by 4:00 or 5:00.

I have decided to start with Mumbotuta ward, the furthest of the four wards we have projects in, and work my way back. It takes about an hour and a quarter to get there, but it’s an enjoyable trip. The Mumbotuta road is my favourite to drive the bike on, because it is a mix of flat straight sections where you can let loose on the throttle, and tight curves over uneven ground, that require lots of manoeuvring. In short, it’s fun to drive!

I am nearing Changwe-Lungo village, fighting to keep the bike from sliding off of this particularly sandy stretch of the road (sand is the enemy of the motorbike, I use it to explain to people here what driving a car in the snow is like… similar, except there is no danger of tipping your car!) when I hear and feel a sharp snap on the bike, and then loose power. The engine is still running and responds to the throttle, but I am just coasting now. I know it has something to do with the chain, and a moving bike and engine will only cause more troubles so I shut off the bike while still moving and jam the breaks, skidding and fishtailing to a stop. I hop off and bend down to find the problem – the chain has come off. I examine it carefully, going over each link to make sure it isn’t broken, and it looks fine. Not that big of a deal. I’m a little curious as to why the chain came off, but am confident that I can put it back on and be on my way.

I manage to replace the chain, hop back on the bike and am off again…for about 5 feet when that same snap comes again. Now I’m worried. I’m off the bike again and sure enough, the chain is hanging, not broken, but off the sprocket. The problem is a little more serious than I had originally thought, but still manageable. Likely the chain is coming off because the back wheel isn’t properly aligned. I check, and sure enough one of the bolts holding the wheel hub in place has come loose, and needs attention. Not an easy fix, but with the help of the little tool kit on the bike I should be up and running again within the hour. I reach up to the container that houses the kit and my heart sinks. It is empty. I remember now that cover has broken on the carrying case and Eddy, my co-worker, has removed the kit. Now I’m in trouble.

I take a minute to sum up the situation in my mind: I’m about 100m from the absolute furthest village that we work in (Changwe-Lungo), approximately 60km from home and at least 45km from any cell phone coverage, my motorbike has a problem that is fixable, but requires tools which I don’t have, and it is hot. July may be part of the cold season in Zambia, but it’s only cold at night. It is nearing midday and temperature is probably in the mid 30s.

I spend the next 30 minutes working on the bike in vain. It’s frustrating knowing how to solve the problem but not being able to, for lack of tools. I try using my hands, sticks, rocks, the carabiner that is on my nalgene, but to no avail. Finally I give up, and start pushing the bike the rest of the way to Changwe-Lungo, conscious of the fact that I’m getting further away from home as I do it. I approach the village, nothing more than a cluster of houses, some made from bricks, most from wood and mud, all with thatch roofs. There is a group of men sitting in the shade of one of the houses, waiting out the hottest part of the day. They jump up when they see me approach and rush out to help me push. We get the bike to the house and park it in the shade, and I begin trying to explain. Again, with the mix of Bemba and English:

“My Honda is broken” – Around here “Honda” refers to any kind of motorbike, and they can plainly see that mine isn’t working

“Ndefwaya tool” – Nothing

“Ndefwaya wrench” – Blank faces

“Ndefwaya spanner” – I am greeting with smiles and nods and they begin discussing amongst themselves in a flurry of Bemba that I can’t even begin to follow. I remember that Zambia was a British colony, and many items and sayings in any of the 72 languages spoken here still attest to that.

My hopes are lifted when one of them rushes off, presumably to get the much needed tools. He returns with a universal bicycle wrench that just might do the trick. I bend down, along with the crowd of villagers who is now surrounding me and my bike, and am dismayed to find that the wrench is the wrong size, and won’t fit. That of course doesn’t deter my new found friends, who each need to take a turn trying. 15 minutes later and the wrench still doesn’t fit. I have decided that the only option is to leave the bike here, and make it back to the BOMA another way.

I use my freakish mix of language to explain that I want to borrow a bicycle from someone, but will return it the following day. My plan is to leave the motorbike, ride back to the BOMA on the bicycle, and return the following day with a truck to return the bicycle and take the motorbike home. It doesn’t take took long to get my point across, and the villagers are happy to comply. I move the bike to the side of a house, lock the front wheel in place, thank the crowd that has gathered to help, and follow one of the men, Mr. Mwape, to his house just outside the village. He disappears behind his house for a moment, and then returns and hand hands me his bicycle. So concludes the most unusual trade I’ve ever had to make: A Honda XL 125cc motorbike for an no-name one speed bicycle with a rusted chain, teeth missing from both sprockets, no pedals, no brakes and a seat that is merely a piece of hard plastic sitting on a coil of wire. Upon seeing the bike I am beginning to rethink my plan, but the only other option is to spend the night here, and that would do nothing to solve the problem of getting home. I’d have to get back to the BOMA eventually, so it might as well be now. I shake Mr. Mwape’s hand, and say “Natotella, tukomwonana maillo”, Thank you, we will meet tomorrow. With that, I hop on the bike and am off. It is now 12:00pm.

I have not gone ten feet before I realize what a difficult task this is going to be. All thoughts of the countless kilometres of bike riding I did as a kid leave my mind. Riding a 21 speed mountain bike on paved roads doesn’t quite compare to this! I stop for a minute to slop a fresh layer of sunscreen on, which makes my face almost black because of all the grease on my hands from working on the bike, and then start off again.

Kilometre after kilometre of uneven, sometimes sandy sometimes rocky path slowly drags by. Up and down hills, past fields and villages. The sun is directly overhead and in no time I’m drenched in sweat and my breathing is laboured. Normally when I pace this way it’s on the motorbike and the fields and villages are flying by. Today, they pass by at an agonizingly slow pace. The only thing flying now are various calculations flying through my head. It’s just taken me an hour to do what I normally do in 15 minutes on the bike. That means I’m going four times slower than normal. If the trip out takes an hour and a quarter, four times that is about 5 hours.

I shake my head to get those thoughts out, but they are instead replaced by biology lessons of days gone by. “The human body loses approximately 2.5L of water per day, but in times of heavy exercise in hot conditions it can lose up to 2.5L an hour”. Again the calculations… At 2L an hour (I’m trying hard to be optimistic at this point) over 5 hours I’ll lose 10L of water. All I have with me is my 1L nalgene full of water, which means I’ll have to stop and refill often. The nature of my work here means that I’m acutely aware of every clean water point in the area, so I make a mental note of where I have to stop. I’ve got a long way to go before I reach the first one, so I push on.

Slowly but surely I am covering ground. Village after village approaches then disappears behind me. When I pass people on the roads, or in their fields I still manage a weak smile and sometimes a wave, if the ground is smooth enough to allow me to take one hand off the handle bars for a brief second. People mostly just stand and stare however. A muzungu flying by on a motorbike draws curious looks to be sure, but they are used to it by now and most people wave vigorously and shout greetings as I pass. That same muzungu crawling by on a rickety bicycle, however, is almost incomprehensible. It just doesn’t make sense. With the exception of a few, everyone is too stunned to do anything but follow my slow progress with their eyes until I am lost from sight in the tall grasses that constantly encroach upon the road. Even the children, who usually come running when they hear my motorbike approach, and chase me for the few brief seconds I’m in sight, simply stare.

Time passes, and after two brief stops to greet people I know and fill my nalgene at their wells, I am finally approaching the 30km mark, roughly the halfway point of my trek. It has been two and a half hours since I started out, and I manage a small satisfied smile that so far my calculations of how long it would take me are holding true.

As I pass the house of one of the sanitation technicians we have just trained I turn my head and give a small wave at his family sitting outside, next to a white pickup truck. I turn back to the road and ride another 50m before I realize what I have just seen – a white pickup truck! This certainly doesn’t belong to him. I stop as quickly as I can (which means that I drag my feet for another 20m because there are no brakes on this bike remember) and ride back to the house. I see the markings on the truck as I approach, and realise it belongs to a friend of mine who works in the forestry department. He is here running a workshop on bee-keeping, a common alternative source of income for many of the farmers in the area (Milenge is known for its honey, and I can’t wait for the end of August, which is reportedly when “honey season” starts).
I drop my bike, and collapse in the shade next to the house waiting for his meeting to finish. When he is done, we load my bike in the back of the truck and drive back to the BOMA, while I savour the cool wind coming through the open windows!


The next day, after a little negotiation, I manage to procure a truck and make my way back to Changwe-Lungo to pick up the bike. It is a frustratingly short trip, as I retrace my agonizing route from the previous day. Upon reaching the village I return Mr. Mwape’s bicycle, along with a bag of oranges and many “Natotella Sana”s [Thank you very much] to accompany it, and start to load the motorbike onto the truck. This of course prompts the men standing around, and half of the children from the nearby school to help. Once the bike is secured in place, I gather everyone together for a picture (nothing says “Thank-you” like taking someone’s picture) and start off for home, at a much quicker pace than the day before!


Anonymous said...

Trevor, you made me laugh out loud at your recounting of your grand bicycle/motorcycle adventure!! Stay safe! love mom

Anonymous said...

Hey Trevor ; Another episode in the continuing saga of Zambian Trevor

Keep it up Trev

Bob Perrin

Dayna said...

Wow, what an adventure! haha I was picturing your face covered in black sunscreen, which definitely made me chuckle!
Hope you're doing well - God bless!

Anonymous said...

Hey Trevor,

That's quite the adventure!! I so wish I was still in Zimbabwe, battling those treacherous "roads" everyday!

I was about to send you an email, but I'm not sure which address to send it to. I remember you telling David to contact you at your EWB address, but I don't remember what that was. Let me know.

Take care Trevor, you're doing amazing work!!


Justin said...


What a great story. Thanks for passing it on. Hope things are well.


Kyle said...


great to hear about your bicycle story. I had a very similar situation in the hills of West Gonja last summer, and had a similar shortage of water. Maybe when you return we can recall the various points at which we were close to death?

The only thing different about our stories is that I was accompanied by a farmer in his mid-60s, and I'll be damned if I was going to let him win... that was my encouragement

L said...


Let me know if you could use a Camelback or something... maybe we could find a way of sending you one... like twice the amount of water than your nalgene? I dunno... these stories immediately make me think about gear, and I'm getting ready for the canoe trip this weekend so that's where my head is! Maybe that wouldn't be practical for other reasons? I dunno... what a story... take care of yourself... and for pitty sake... carry some tools!!!!LOL

ashleyr said...

Is it possible for me to feel exhausted merely by the association of having read this post?? B/c I'm wiped out!!!

I have to say I'm also impressed with the Biology lesson memories of an it bad that the biologist didn't know that?!

hahahahahaha.....speaking of which, enjoyed the humour/sarcasm in today's account :)


Anonymous said...

Once again, you had me laugh out loud. I thought you were having a heat stroke when you didn't stop immediately upon seeing the white truck!! Once again thankyou for sharing. I look forward to every posting. It makes me feel so good to hear how wonderful the African people are. We can learn a lot from them.
Dana S.

Sue Titcombe said...


Your parents told me this story last week, but I'm glad to finally have a chance to read your rendition of it. I hope you're keeping well and that there will be new adventures soon.