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Bikes boost girls in Zambia

Innovative program distributes bicycles to rural schoolchildren.

Zambian girl on bike
Zambian schoolgirl Mary Lewinika riding her new bike at the distribution of bicycles to students at Ndapula Community School as part of the World Bicycle Relief, Bicycles for Educational Empowerment Program. (Leah Missbach Day/GlobalPost)

Photo caption: Zambian schoolgirl Mary Lewinika riding her new bike. (Leah Missbach Day/GlobalPost)

LUSAKA, Zambia — At the age of 19, Mary Lewanika is old enough to be in college pursuing her chosen career of teaching. But due to many challenges, including the long distance to the nearest school, she has only just entered eighth grade.

Lewanika is one of many girls in her area who received a bicycle as part of an educational initiative led by American NGO World Bicycle Relief, which will distribute some 50,000 bicycles to impoverished schoolchildren — mainly girls — in rural Zambia.

"It is unlikely that I would have made it to Grade Eight if I didn't have a bicycle. From my village in Ndapula to here [Lwimba Basic School] it is 9 kilometers [5.5 miles] one way, and I don't think I would have managed to walk 18 kilometers [10 miles] each day," said Lewanika.

Like most African girls living in rural areas, Lewanika wakes up at 5 a.m. to sweep the yard and prepare breakfast for her family. Then she rides her bicycle a mile to the village well to fetch water that will be used by her parents and her eight siblings during the day while she is at school. Afterward, she sets out on the 5.5-mile ride to school.

"I always start off early because my girlfriend has no bicycle and I have to give her a lift to school. Otherwise she is not able to walk to school and back," Lewanika explained.

In Zambia, like in much of rural Africa, fewer girls attend school mostly because of the long distances involved and the tendency by some parents to use this as an excuse to push them into early marriages. A government of Zambia education survey in 2002 named distance as a major hindrance to rural children attending school; 27 percent of them dropped out because of this challenge, according to the survey.

In addition, the impact of HIV/AIDS, which affects an estimated 16 percent of the population, as well as the growing number of orphans and child-led households, help explain why only 60 percent of primary schoolchildren in Zambia complete their education.