With the riding prowess that Valeria Muhembele displays as she whizzes home on her bicycle after school, it is hard to believe the Form Four girl learnt to get her balance right just recently.
Her day is done at Lwanda Secondary School, and top on her mind is how to get home as quickly as possible. Their home is in Madiori, which is a two-hour walk from the school located in Shinyalu, Kakamega.
With a bicycle, 30 minutes is all the 18-year-old needs to cruise on murram-paved roads home. She often carries a colleague, which she counts as a safety measure.
“There is a hilly place where we walk for at least 10 minutes then we continue riding,” she says.
When she received her bicycle in June 2015, she could not keep count of those who stared at her in awe and disgust. A girl riding a bicycle in the area was taboo.
“At first it was strange but, with time, it became a habit,” she says.
She is, however, not the only one in the school who has a bike. There is a total of 255 bicycles in the institution, 178 of them belonging to girls, which students have been receiving for free since 2015.
Lwanda is among 48 secondary schools that have received bicycles in Kakamega, Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia, Bungoma, Busia, Kisumu and Siaya counties due to a collaboration by an American couple – Mr Frederick King Day, simply known by his initials FK, and Mrs Leah Day – and three international aid organisations.
Among all the schools, Lwanda has received the highest number of bicycles, with a policy that 70 per cent of the two-wheelers should go to girls. As such, the spectacle witnessed when students are heading home is a story every visitor in the area must be told about.
The result has been a cultural revolution where girls in the school have finally convinced the surrounding community to live with the fact that females can also ride bicycles.
“Culturally, among the people here, the girls don’t ride bicycles. Maybe it happens in some parts of Bungoma and Busia. But in Shinyalu, women don’t ride bicycles. So, initially we got a lot of resistance from the parents,” recalls the school principal, Mr Michael Amukowa.
Celestine Janira, a Form Four girl, remembers how the change happened.
“Initially, it was awkward. I feared riding a bicycle because everybody would just look at you as if you are abnormal. But when we were given bicycles, the villagers became used to it,” she says.
The Nation recently visited Lwanda Secondary School to have a feel of the impact of the bicycle programme, which its proponents say has helped level the playing field for girls who often had to rely on cunning boda boda motorcyclists who would later ask for sexual favours.
Some of the 48 secondary schools that have received bikes are Raliew, Mahanga, Lwandeti, Kisian, Kuoyo, Kit Mikayi, Nyakhobi, Alupe, Namboboto, Wareng, Navakholo, Siaya Township, Rapogi, Angorom and Bujwanga.
The World Bicycle Relief (WBR), which is leading the programme, requires the respective schools to create a bicycle steering committee consisting of parents, teachers and a government representative – often the chief. This committee selects the students to receive bikes.
The bicycles given out are the Buffalo brand whose parts are made in China and assembled in Kisumu. So far, WBR has distributed bikes to 29 schools by partnering with World Vision; 10 schools with Plan International and nine institutions with Child Fund.
Learners who commute for more than six kilometres a day are given first priority in the issuance of the bikes and they are allowed to do domestic chores with the bicycles when not in school. Their parents are also allowed to use the bicycles during weekends to perform any other task.
At Lwanda Secondary, most of the beneficiaries of the programme come from Senyende, Shangalangwi and Madiori villages that surround the school.
Mr Amukowa says the phenomenon of boda boda motorcyclists preying on students who lacked fare was widespread but has now reduced.
“The number of early pregnancies has now dropped by over 90 per cent. In fact, for the first time last year, all our candidates sat for Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education without any case of reported pregnancy. This is encouraging when compared to previous years when two or three were expectant,” Mr Amukowa said.
Because of this motivation, there are improvements in girls’ classwork. Mr Amukowa noted that among the top 10 Form Four students at Lwanda, six are girls.
“This group is being led by girls. They are in control and doing better than the boys. In the other years, boys have always lead,” says Mr Amukowa.
Even the students reckon that improved performance in girls is because of the bicycles.
“Before I was given a bicycle, I was at least an average performer. But now, I am among the best in class,” said Valeria, adding she is among the top two in the Form Four class that has 92 students.
“The girls come early and they do their work on time,” said Form Four student Kevin Mwanyalo, 19.
So transformational has been the bicycle programme that the school has received increased interest from students who want to join Form One.
“I am happy we are having some very bright students in Form One. Some of them have come here with very high marks. They were destined for Mukumu Girls, Musingu, Kakamega School, but they said, “No, we want to come to Lwanda where we pay little fees, get a bicycle and we pass our exams,” said Mr Amukowa.
A parent at the school, Mr Gregory Mukagwa, is optimistic that if the programme is sustained, there will be a change in residents’ fortunes.
“Now it has reduced the expenses incurred by parents who used to cater for the students’ fare,” he said.
The bicycle programme that is stirring excitement in schools across western Kenya and parts of the North Rift was born out of a devastating natural calamity 13 years ago.
The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 that killed thousands in South East Asia was a turning point in the lives of Mr and Mrs Day.
As they followed the tragic events in South East Asia from their home in America, the couple turned their focus on Sri Lanka, one of the countries affected by the tsunami and weighed options on how to help. They resolved to give out bicycles using World Vision as the distribution partner.
“We worked with a local bicycle supplier in Sri Lanka. My husband coordinated the type of bicycle he thought would be good for the purpose, good for the terrain, good for the people and we paid a supplier to build the bicycles,” Mrs Day adds.
Mr Day is a co-founder of Sram, a company started in 1987 that makes components for high-end bicycles that have been used in major cycling competitions. It is considered the second largest manufacturer of bicycle components in the world, having 4,000 employees globally.
“Sram deals only in the bikes that are over Sh250,000 ($2500) ” Mr Day told the Nation.
It is in Zambia where they saw the need to design their own bicycle and that is how they came up with Buffalo bicycle, whose manufacture is independent of the Sram Corporation.
The Buffalo bike has been distributed to various institutions through WBR. Their website says 300,000 models have been given out in Africa so far.
“The reason why both WBR and Buffalo bicycles exist is to help people overcome distance as a challenge to any barrier that they might have in life – whether it is from an education, health or entrepreneur related,” says Ms Adema Sangale, a Kenyan who is the African vice president of WBR.
In Kenya, distribution of the bicycles to schools began in 2015.
Mr and Mrs Day made a decision last year to leave their home in Chicago and decided to live in Kisumu for some time since last September.
“Setting up in Kisumu was ideal because there was such a deep bicycle culture.
So, in the end we decided to have an office in Nairobi for decision-making, but all of our assembly support is in Kisumu,” said Mr Day.