Chicago charity distributes bikes in Zambia

Bicycles in ZambiaA U.S. charity started distributing bicycles in Zambia on Wednesday in a program designed to make it easier for thousands of children in the southern African country to get to school.

The Chicago-based World Bicycle Relief plans to give away 50,000 bicycles in Zambia, where long distances and a lack of transportation keeps many children from going to school.

The first 100 bicycles were delivered Wednesday to children enrolled at Ndapula Community School in Chongwe, set amid undulating hills about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of the Zambian capital, Lusaka. Some of the children shed tears of joy as they received the gifts.

Rita Daka, a 14-year-old who has had to rise at 5 a.m. for a 5-mile (8-kilometer) walk to Ndapula, said she’ll get to school more often now that she can ride a bicycle.

Berita Milimo, 12, called her long walk to school a “nagging headache,” and said she often skips it in favor of playing with her siblings at home once her parents leave to tend their cotton fields.

“Many of the children of Zambia start walking to school before the sun comes up and return home after the sun goes down just to get an education,” Frederick Day, president of World Bicycle Relief, said in Chongwe on Wednesday.

The project started by bike and bike part manufacturers SRAM Corporation and Trek has identified lack of safe, reliable transportation as one of the reasons children in developing countries don’t get to school. Those that do make it over long distances often arrive too tired and hungry to learn.

Only 20 percent of Zambia’s children complete high school. The high drop out rate ensures continued poverty for many.

“Absenteeism has been our biggest challenge,” Ndapula school official Amos Muliswa said. “It has dogged us ever since we established this community school in 2003.”

World Bicycle Relief will give 70 percent of its bikes to girls, who are seen as vulnerable to harassment on long walks. It expects to spend $7.5 million over three years to reach its goal of handing out 50,000 bikes, working with the Zambian Ministry of Education, local communities and other relief organizations such as CARE and the Salvation Army.

Joseph Musati, deputy head of Ndapula school, said it was difficult for him to express the gratitude of teachers, students and parents.

“We know how much a bicycle costs, so how can you thank a people who can give your school not only a single bicycle, but 100 for your pupils?”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.