Albertina Muloongo, a health-care service provider, had seen many people in Zambia suffering from malaria forced to walk or even stagger hours to see a doctor, as neither public transportation nor private vehicle ownership is very common in the country.
But their lives have changed dramatically since they received a batch of about 40 bicycles from Japan in 1988, said Muloongo, who lives in the northern central city of Ndola.
Pedal power has in fact grown enormously in Zambia.
For the majority of people, “no other transportation is available to get to a clinic which is very far away,” Muloongo, 46, said in a recent telephone interview. “When people get malaria or any other acute illness, their family members can borrow a bicycle to take them to the clinic.”
In Zambia, with an annual per capita income of $630, a bicycle costs a typical citizen a fortune. In the region where Muloongo works, people without a bicycle had to walk at least 6 km just to get to the nearest clinic, she said.
There are currently about 600 such bicycles in the Masaiti and Lufwanyama districts in Copperbelt province, where Muloongo directs a reproductive health-care program. They are mainly used by volunteers to carry large bags and make the rounds of homes to provide health-care information and services.
The community she lives in is one of those that have benefited from a project jointly run by a Japanese citizens’ group and local governments to give to needy countries the bicycles that are left unclaimed at illegal parking zones in urban centers in Japan.
Rather than mountain bikes or other sporty types, typical Japanese bikes, often called “mama chari,” are the ones in strong demand in recipient countries because of their useful features, such as a fixed basket at the front to carry goods or babies or even grownups, and an extra saddle on the back, according to project organizers.
The project was started in the late 1980s by the Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning, which teamed up first with Toshima Ward, Tokyo.
The municipality had long been struggling to deal with the multitude of illegally parked bicycles hauled away near major railway stations such as Ikebukuro, one of Tokyo’s busiest terminals. Many owners do not bother to claim them, apparently because of the price they have to pay, which in Toshima stands at ¥5,000.
Back in 1988, the ward office donated 300 of these bicycles to Malaysia and the Philippines. But what was meant to be an act of charity met with unexpected criticism from local media in Malaysia, said Masahiko Mizushima, 67-year-old vice mayor of Toshima, who was then in charge of traffic safety issues at the ward office.
Mizushima said the ward office was blamed for dumping in Malaysia what was discarded in Japan, even though the bicycles were refurbished before they were delivered.
“I realized this is not an easy task for a local government,” Mizushima said. “We needed a partner who is in the know about local needs and conditions to work on our behalf.”
About a year earlier, Hideyuki Takahashi of the Tokyo-based JOICFP was visiting a village in Uganda on a business trip. While he was there a woman approached him and said, “Please bring us a bike so that we can get out of this living hell,” Takahashi said.
The woman said the village was mired in abject poverty and people were dying before they could see a doctor because they could not afford a decent vehicle for transport.
Takahashi, the 56-year-old director of the JOICFP’s resources development and campaigns, said that in many other places in Africa and Asia he had received requests for food or clothing, but this was the first time he had been asked to provide a bicycle.
He was not sure how bicycles could improve their lives, not to mention how he could manage to get them there. But after returning to Japan he came across a newspaper report about Toshima Ward’s bicycle venture and took his story to Mizushima.
The JOICFP and Toshima Ward joined hands in 1989, hoping to attain their respective goals of providing bicycles to countries that need them and of making use of vehicles left unclaimed.
They created a task force, later dubbed the Municipal Coordinating Committee for Overseas Bicycle Assistance. Through this committee, the JOICFP has formed partnerships with 13 local governments, including Toshima, Kawaguchi in Saitama Prefecture, Shizuoka and Hiroshima.
The committee says it has shipped more than 55,000 bicycles to 89 nations, including Tanzania, Mexico and Afghanistan.
Hanatsu Takahashi, chief of the traffic safety division in Toshima Ward and head of the task force, said they are now inviting more local governments to take part to respond to ballooning demand.
Critics say these municipalities should be striving to secure sufficient spaces for people to park their bicycles legally, rather than spending effort and resources on donating illegally parked bicycles to a charity for poor countries, however noble the cause may be.
Hanatsu Takahashi, 37, said securing bike parking lots is particularly difficult in a space-scarce city like Tokyo and many cyclists just shun parking lots if they are farther than 200 meters from the ticket gate of the nearest station.
“It takes time to secure enough parking spaces at this already overcrowded (Ikebukuro) station. We are going to work hard on it, but we still have to continue removing the bicycles,” he said.
Ikebukuro remains among the worst 10 stations in Japan for illegally parked bicycles.
He said the bicycle project, despite criticism and the labor it entails, has its bright side. Local government officials, often too concerned about domestic affairs, are turning their attention to outside the country, he said.
The JOICFP’s Hideyuki Takahashi also stressed the importance of this project. “One single bicycle can save the lives of 500 villagers in some developing countries where it is not uncommon for sick people to die on a nurse’s back while being carried to a hospital,” he said.