Islanders gather bikes to promote education in the small West African nation.
Encrusted in ice, it was a day that would make many cyclists cringe.
Still, they assembled near Day Road – Olowo-n’djo Tchala, slender and smiling, from the west African nation of Togo; Raleigh Ballou, the spry 80-something from Poulsbo; and islanders Maria and Adrian Mason, mother and son, only a few months removed from a “rite of passage” trip to Africa.
Each helped push bike after unclaimed bike from a police storage shed toward trucks waiting in the shady driveway.
“This is a good one,” Tchala laughed, struggling with a wobbly wheeled 10- speed that was clearly more than a few wrench-turns from racing form.
Fortunately, these bikes weren’t bound for a velodrome. From dusty desuetude, they soon rumbled in trucks over miles of freeway to Tchala’s Olympia home, to be sorted and stored. There, spokes will be straightened. Flats will be repaired.
Then they’ll sit until Tchala, Ballou and the Masons have collected enough bikes – about 375 of them – to fill a shipping container bound for Togo.
Tchala and the Masons, who became involved with the West African’s cause after a chance meeting in 2004, last summer made the first of what they hope will be many treks to Togo to deliver unwanted bicycles to youths who’ll use them to pedal toward a better future.
In Togo, where widespread poverty, poor health care and ethnic division create harsh living conditions, bikes equal education. Many of Tchala’s countrymen must journey as far as 10 miles each day to the nearest school. Without transportation, few will make it past the sixth grade.
The problem is especially bad among Togolese women, who, for a variety of cultural reasons, often succumb to poverty. Half drop out by sixth grade.
“Togo is a forgotten country,” Tchala said. “There are a number of problems, and all of them are linked. But education is so important and bicycles give students incentive to go to school.”
Tchala grew up in a town of about 17,000 and quit school young to work in the fields. By several wives, his father had 32 children; his mother had eight.
Tchala spent much of his childhood gathering firewood and shea nuts with his mother, who was exploited for her labor as she struggled to care for her family. School, several miles from Tchala’s home, became an afterthought.
Still, as he watched his mother toil, he often thought of ways to escape poverty.
After meeting his future wife, who had come to Togo as a member of the Peace Corps, Tchala left Togo for the United States. He arrived in 1998, unable to speak English and with only a sixth grade education.
Nonetheless, he found his way into college, eventually earning a degree from the University of California at Davis.
He and his wife now own a company, Alaffia Sustainable Skin Care, that sells fairly traded shea butter products, like soaps and lotions, from Tchala’s native Togo. At a co-op in the country, Tchala employs some 83 people, mostly women, all of whom have health care and are paid above the standard wage.
Over the last three years, $400,000 of Alaffia’s profits have gone toward fighting poverty in Togo.
“I have so many ideas,” Tchala said. “But you can only do so much.”
Enter the Masons, who met Tchala in 2004 at the Bumbershoot music festival in Seattle.
After hearing about the conditions in Togo, and the ways in which Tchala was trying to help, Maria found herself inspired. She, too, wanted to do something. Several months passed. Then, one day, she picked up the phone.
“I finally called him up and asked if he remembered talking to us,” Maria said. “I told him I was serious about helping.”
The biggest need, Tchala said, was bicycles. Maria and Adrian, a freshman at Colgate University and himself a cyclist, started scouring.
They spent the next year and a half tracking forsaken bicycles. Basements, sheds, garages, clean, cluttered or crawling with critters – their search took them anywhere bikes, rendered superfluous for one reason or another, had been laid to rest.
“We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into,” joked Adrian.
Indeed, Maria added, collecting the bikes sometimes took more time and energy than either could have anticipated. Slowly, though, the stack grew.
Word of their efforts eventually found its way to Ballou.
“I just thought I could help,” said Ballou, who in his eighties still jogs daily.
He was right. Ballou has gathered dozens of bicycles, including a single haul of nearly 50 just before Christmas. The push culminated last summer with Tchala and the Masons heading to Togo, where they matched students with bikes.
Bikes were distributed based on need, with those facing the greatest distances given priority. The hope is that bicycles will encourage more students to stick with school until college.
Deciding who should get bikes was a laborious task. The main goal was to ensure the bikes would be used to further education. Among other conditions, recipients had to promise to keep the bikes in working order.
Saying no, Tchala said, was the hardest part, especially since so many are in need. Many simply didn’t understand.
“It’s difficult to get some people there to look beyond the ethnic boundaries,” Tchala said, “to see beyond themselves. The challenge is getting them to come together.”
Back on Bainbridge, and across the region, focus has again shifted to collecting bikes. In addition to seeking out individual donations, Tchala, Ballou and the Masons are planning larger events that will bring more bikes to them.
They will return to Togo once they’ve collected enough bikes. Maria, meanwhile, is still basking in the memories of their last trip.
Along with a book full of photos, she recorded thoughts from the trip, in a small black notebook, including a quote from a Togolese elder that she found particularly fitting.
“From the words of the ancestors,” he said, “a small thing becomes big.”
Bike to Africa
Alaffia Sustainable Skin Products are sold throughout the Puget Sound area, including Whole Foods. To donate bicycles, call 842-1991 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Off-island donors can call (360) 866-0080 or email email@example.com.