April 11, 2009-Bikes Not Bombs volunteers strip old bike wheels and toss them into a pile of bike parts headed to the Vijana Center, a school in Tanzania.
Bayla Shepley pulled inner tubes off used bike rims on a recent rainy Saturday in Jamaica Plain, Boston. A high school student at the Cambridge school of Weston, Shepley was one of 15 Bikes Not Bombs volunteers who loaded nearly 450 landfill-bound bicycles and parts into a gray shipping container destined for Tanzania.
In a few weeks, the bikes and parts will make their way to the Vijana Center, a school located in Arusha, Tanzania, a small town nestled in a valley between Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru.
Carl Kurz and Michael Replogle founded Bikes Not Bombs in 1984 as a political statement against the Reagan-era weapons programs that spurred bloodshed in Central America. According Kurz, Bikes Not Bombs has sent over 37,000 used bikes to third world countries, including this latest shipment.
Bikes are collected at Bikes Not Bombs sponsored bike drives, held in the spring and fall at schools in the Boston area. Since the eighties, the organization has since expanded to include Tanzania, South Africa, Ghana, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nevis Island in the Caribbean among their bike donation destinations.
Kurz has cultivated international relationships with the bike-receiving organizations, many of which are schools, like the Vijana Center in Tanzania. Students at the Vijana Center, many of whom are orphans, learn computer skills, secretarial skills, foreign languages and bike mechanics. These bike-building and maintenance skills allow the students to generate revenue for the school by refurbishing and selling bikes they receive from Bikes Not Bombs.
“I found it really mind boggling that the school was almost completely fueled by bicycles,” said Kurz after a visit to the Vijana Center. “I could hold all the tools they used in one hand. I thought, ‘How is this possible?’”
According to Kurz, the Vijana Center sells nearly 200 bikes a week, generating 90 percent to 95 percent of their operating costs—salaries, utilities, building costs, etc.“Bicycles are extremely valuable in Tanzania,” said Kurz, while volunteers huddled around him in the cold warehouse and munched pizza. “There’s a flowering of bike culture there that’s pretty impressive.”
Bikes can improve the quality of life for Tanzanians by providing access to markets, schools, jobs and medical care. “In Arusha, public transportation is prohibitively expensive and traffic jams regularly last three hours. But there’s a steady stream of bikes flowing in both directions,” Kurz said.
Boston resident George Mallett has been a Bikes Not Bombs volunteer for three years. “Bicycles, third word projects, social justice programs and recycling. They do all that. That’s why I volunteer,” Mallett said.
In 2006, Bikes Not Bombs moved from a cramped dark basement office into a new headquarters situated in the Brewery Complex, Jamaica Plain, with a separate, spacious bike shop. The bike shop sells refurbished bikes, offers bicycle mechanics classes in English and Spanish and an after-school program for girls 10-13, among other programs.
“Here you can get a bike that was awesome twenty years ago and is still awesome today,” said Chris Adams, pointing to a slate-blue Univega with sparkly gold grips for $325. “There’s a lot of nostalgia for these bikes. They are really sexy and cool. Its pretty much the best deal in town.”
While Bikes Not Bombs has grown into a full-fledged non-profit, they’ve stayed true to their punk rock roots and locally-oriented ethic by building a community around bikes and social activism in Boston.
“Bikes Not Bombs is interesting to people because it’s cool,” said Chris Adams, a Bikes Not Bombs volunteer for four years. “The name is provocative, we’re very connected to the community, it’s very easy for people to get behind it. It’s not hard for Bikes Not Bombs to maintain a huge population of supporters. It’s a durable organization.”
This rainy Saturday, Carl Kurz helped volunteers load bikes into the trailer. Kurz resembled a wizened fisherman, wearing a black fleece cap over shaggy salt and pepper hair that crept into a reddish beard. He talked about everything from bike construction to African politics, with a quick intensity and a get-it-done attitude. Volunteers followed him with questions while he pushed a stroller full of bike parts toward the trailer.
“Adult bikes”, yelled Leona Walsh from inside the trailer. Volunteers grabbed lined up with adult bikes and helped her loaded them into the trailer. The eight-foot-tall pile of bikes in the warehouse dwindled.
“Bikes Not Bombs has a very transparent, very clear mission,” said Kit Transue who has volunteered for Bikes Not Bombs for seven years. “It’s recycling, re-allocation of resources, bikes and third world activism. It’s very clear how these pieces fit together. The fact that Bikes Not Bombs can give people in the community something so concretely helpful is inspiring.”
Bikes Not Bombs’ largest fundraising event, their 22 annual Bike-a-thon, will be held on June 7, 2009, in Boston. The Bike-a-thon is a 15, 25 or 62 mile ride followed by live music, food and parties. Proceeds support the organization.
Web site: www.bikesnotbombs.org