Dunkirk’s Spoke Folk: Changing lives half a world away

In this photograph of Main Street in Fredonia from the early 1900s, there are as many bicycles as vehicles on the street. Notably, the majority of the cyclists pictured are young women whose lives were most impacted by the bicycle craze of the 1890s.

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” Susan B. Anthony told a reporter in 1896. “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

A symbol of women’s emancipation — a literal and metaphorical vehicle for change — the bicycle uniquely served American women on their journey to suffrage and equal rights over 100 years ago. Now, young girls in Tanzania are experiencing a similar opportunity for equality, specifically an education, that will give their dreams a much better chance of coming true.

Spoke Folk

When Rich Goodman helped create the Spoke Folk Community Bicycle Project in 2007, he had no idea the organization would forever change the lives of girls in rural Tanzania. However, this is precisely the impact that Spoke Folk’s contribution of 16 bicycles will have on young girls who are now able to get to school.

A lifelong cycling enthusiast, Goodman recognized a need for a community bike program: a place where the underserved in the Dunkirk area could obtain a bicycle, have a reliable repair facility and even learn the basics of bicycle repair and maintenance. Through a grant award from the Research Foundation of SUNY Fredonia, Spoke Folk was formed and has since restored and returned more than 800 bicycles to the community, distributed more than 1,100 bicycle helmets, given bikes to children through the “Every Kid Deserves a Bike Project,” and created a “Meals on Two Wheels” delivery team.

Thanks to Dunkirk’s Spoke Folk, 16 young girls who live in Musoma, Tanzania are able to continue their education now that they have their own mode of transportation.

Importantly, Goodman notes, Spoke Folk is a form of “social entrepreneurship,” which involves non-profits developing a hybrid business model consisting of private and public partnerships. “My philosophy has always been, ‘Grants will dry up,” said Goodman, “‘but the need is still there’.” By creating a source of revenue, non-profits like Spoke Folk can continue to fund their operations and meet the needs of the community. For Spoke Folk, this has taken the form of Wheel People, a retail bicycle and repair shop located at 819 Central Avenue in Dunkirk.

The success of Wheel People is obvious, as Spoke Folk transitioned from a sponsored award through SUNY Fredonia’s Dunkirk Community Partnership to an independent organization two years ago. Now, others are looking at Spoke Folk’s model and recognizing how it could be effective in their own community. This was the case when Stephen Marwa, executive director of the Hope Revival Children’s Organization (HRCO) of Musoma, Tanzania, reached out to Goodman last year.

Hope Revival Children’s Organization

HRCO, a non-profit, non-governmental organization in Tanzania, was established in 2013 and supports orphans and other vulnerable children in obtaining primary and secondary educations. While free public education is a given in developed countries like the United States, this is far from the case in Tanzania, especially for young girls. In Marwa’s letter to Goodman, he explained the grim reality for girls in the Mara region:

“In elementary schools, the number of girls’ enrollment is half the number of boys, and in secondary school, this number is three times less than that of boys…For every girl who completes her education, there are two boys who graduate. Furthermore, the dropout rate of girls in comparison to boys is twice of the boys,” Marwa wrote.

The disparity in these numbers is due to multiple factors. “Regrettably, early and forced marriages are very common in the Mara region,” Marwa explained. “…When it comes to marriage of girls, there are people who wed their girl to a much older man than her and see the marriage as a source of revenue in the form of a bride price. In Mara, it is more like selling their girls in return for a large sum of money. After marriage, they are not allowed to attend school because of their domestic responsibilities and motherhood.”

Other factors include the high rate of poverty in Tanzania, which is compounded by the high rate of HIV/AIDS that has claimed the lives of many children’s parents, leaving them orphans who must work to support themselves and their younger siblings instead of attending school.

Despite the work being done to establish more schools in the Mara region, girls are often discouraged from attending school because of their vulnerability. Many girls must walk as far as seven or eight kilometers (4.5 miles) each way. “When girls reach adolescence and travel a long way to get to school, according to the cultural norms, such doings are considered to dishonor or shame the families,” Marwa wrote. “Furthermore, on the way, they would also be verbally or sexually harassed.”

Marwa concluded his letter to Goodman by stating that the most critical challenge these girls face is the walking distance from their home to school, as transportation can make — or break — a young girl’s opportunity to get a life-changing education.

Goodman was moved to help HRCO, whom he had already become involved with through Tanzania initiatives at the University at Buffalo, where his daughter teaches. “It started out with a sewing project, where the girls learned how to manufacture and sell feminine hygiene products, which there is a real need for,” Goodman explained. “Then it involved making leather shoes for the girls to wear and sell to make money,” he added. Providing sustainable ways for the girls to make money gives them the opportunity to attend school, Goodman pointed out. The next logical step, of course, was getting them there.

For several months, Goodman and Spoke Folk worked hard to find a source of bicycles in Tanzania, as the logistical and financial challenges of shipping bikes from the U.S. to Tanzania were prohibitive. Once a source was found, Goodman took advantage of the favorable exchange rate to purchase 16 bicycles. Another challenge involved sending the money, as Tanzania is a restricted country in international banking. Fortunately, professors from the University at Buffalo who are familiar with this challenge assisted Goodman in getting the funds to Tanzania. The first shipment of 16 bicycles was given to the girls through HRCO approximately one month ago, and Goodman is hoping to send another soon.

“Phase two involves developing sustainability,” Goodman explained. “This involves having a bike lab there that is similar to ours to guarantee the maintenance of the bikes so that the program can sustain itself.”

Testimonials

The response to the bikes is heart-warming, to say the least. In an email to Goodman, Marwa was pleased to report that already, the sewing and leather shoe-making project has saved more than 280 girls from dropping out in just three years, and that many young mothers who have learned technical skills training are self-employed, and therefore self-reliant.

“The girls are real in extending their sincere thanks from the bottom of their hearts to Mr. Goodman and the Spoke Folk/Wheel People for recognizing their potentialities in the community, and now they are back in school that has revived their dreams to complete secondary education level,” Marwa wrote. He included multiple testimonies from the girls:

“My name is S. Nyaholi. I am single mother living with HIV with children, a daughter and a boy. My husband died due to HIV and my health is not promising at all, but my daughter Mary Juma passed to secondary school and I had no way to support her to continue; HRCO has been supporting her from primary level until now. Three days ago, Mary came home riding a bike while shouting, ‘Thank you Richard, thank you Richard, thank you HRCO for reviving my dream!’ I didn’t know what was going on, until she told me that Richard has donated 16 bicycles to 16 girls who have passed to secondary school and HRCO has given to us. We thank God for this great opportunity.”

Another testimony reads, “My name is Tana Nyabange. I am 14 years old. I lost both my parents when I was 9 years old. I had no help from my relatives so I went to stay with one of my neighbor while schooling is where I met with Stephen Marwa. He promised to support my primary schooling and I managed to pass to secondary school and still he is supporting. I real thank Richard Goodman being touched with my life situation to buy me bicycle to assist me to go to school. Indeed I hope to complete my secondary. Thank you HRCO, thank you Richard.”

Parallels

To Goodman, the impact these bikes have on girls obtaining an education represents a parallel in history to the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries. “Cycling was in its heyday in the 1890s,” Goodman said. “Bicycles gave women their mobility — their freedom — in a way that nothing else could.”

“A tool of personal and political power,” the bicycle allowed women freedom of movement, both from the restrictive dress of the Victorian era and the limits of their own neighborhood, writes Peter Zheutlin in an article about suffragette Annie Londonderry. Thanks to the bicycle, working outside the home became possible for some women, and traveling to political gatherings like suffrage (right to vote) rallies also became possible.

“The bike is a wonderful, wonderful tool for recreation and fitness,” said Goodman, who can often be seen riding his bike in Dunkirk and Fredonia, year ’round. “But for many people, it’s the difference between being able to work, to get medical attention and get to training programs, like these girls in Tanzania. Bikes help people choose their dreams, but also do something as basic as find clean water, which can take hours to get to in Tanzania.”

Goodman recognizes another parallel to Spoke Folk’s work in Dunkirk. “Something as simple as a bike can change someone’s life here,” he stated. Goodman recalled one of Spoke Folk’s most recent donations to a resident of Second Street in Dunkirk who had been walking to work at a restaurant on Bennett Road in Fredonia. “This represents economic development at its most basic level,” he said. “No transportation means no work for some people.”

“The bicycle changed my whole life,” said Goodman, professor and director emeritus of SUNY Fredonia’s Lifelong Learning International Programs and Economic Development. “It kept me out of trouble,” he chuckled, as he recalled his childhood in Detroit. When he was 10 years old, Goodman began hanging out at a nearby bicycle shop where his curiosity about bicycles grew into a passion for cycling that also helped him in the classroom.

“I really struggled in geometry,” he recalled. “So my teacher had me bring in my bicycle. He pointed out the spokes and the different parts, and that’s when I really understood diameter, radius, that sort of thing. With Spoke Folk, we’ve developed a curriculum to teach algebra and geometry. It’s great for people who prefer applied learning over book-related.”

Providing bikes to the HRCO girls, to Goodman, is a natural extension of Spoke Folk’s mission and one that he plans to continue. He encourages those who would like to learn more about Spoke Folk to visit their website, www.spokefolk.net. Spoke Folk is looking for a partner to build a community bike center to create jobs and an ownership opportunity; interested individuals can contact him at 673-5834 or goodman@fredonia.edu.

“It’s amazing that something in Dunkirk is making a difference in young girls’ lives in rural Tanzania,” Goodman reflected. “Spoke Folk’s goal is to build healthier communities one bike at a time, and now we’re doing that half way around the world. Enriching just one life is more than I could ever ask.”

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