For years, it was a long, hot and dusty walk to school. By the time Halimatou Ceesas, 12, had made the three-mile journey in the Gambian sun, she was tired and often late.
Halimatou’s mother sells bread and beans by the side of the road; her father mends televisions and solar chargers for a living. “We are poor,” Halimatou says simply, explaining why they didn’t have the money for her bus fare.
Then a small miracle happened. These days Halimatou has got wheels, she has a shiny, much-loved blue bike on long-term loan.
She leaves her dusty compound, whizzes down a tarmac road, bumps along a potholed dirt track and in 15 minutes she is in class, full of energy and ready to learn.
Halimatou is one of the lucky few. Millions of schoolchildren have to walk for hours to get an education. For many it is a perilous journey, with the risk of being robbed, attacked, run over or bitten by snakes and insects.
In Gambia, where most people depend on agriculture to survive, there are demands on children that get in the way of their education. They are needed for planting and harvesting, and girls have to fit school around collecting water, gathering firewood and a long list of chores at home. It is no wonder that most Gambians are illiterate by the time they reach adulthood.
As well as being Africa’s smallest country, Gambia is one of its poorest. Many of the migrants making the dangerous journey to Europe are young men from Gambia, fleeing poverty and unemployment.
A bicycle may not seem like a very powerful weapon to combat all this, but just one can change a family’s prospects. It allows them to get produce to market, save money on buses, get a daughter to school or a son to work — all things that make an enormous difference in the lives of people surviving on less than £1 a day.
“Now I have my bicycle, my performance is very good,” she says. “I want to be a teacher. People teach me and I want to teach others, so that what I have they can also have.”
Halimatou’s school in Madina Salaam is Re-Cycle’s local partner in Gambia. As well as educating the young, the Wonder Years Centre of Excellence school teaches local people skills that help them generate more income.
Two mechanics, trained by Re-Cycle, fix up the most recent delivery of bikes from the UK. They are sold at low prices to locals who prize second-hand British bikes over the cheap Chinese new ones they can buy in local markets. They are more robust and suited to rough roads. That first container of 494 bikes made a £6,000 profit, all reinvested in the school.
Having the knowledge to mend bicycles is key to the whole operation, and Re-Cycle ensures the two mechanics are trained to deal with wear and tear and more complicated problems.
Halimatou is a regular customer, as she takes such pride in her most treasured possession. “Some people destroy their bikes. I keep mine nice. I wash it, I bring it to the workshop.” She almost never misses school, her grades have risen and her horizons have expanded. “Now I have my bicycle, my performance is very good,” she says. “I want to be a teacher. People teach me and I want to teach others, so that what I have they can also have.”