By JOAN TOBEY
When I signed up for the globalbike trip to Tanzania, I expected to be transformed. But, on that first night with the group at the Babylon Hotel, when asked what kind of transformation I expected, I naively had not anticipated exactly what to say. In retrospect, I expected to feel a satisfaction that does not easily come from the send-in-a-check kind of impersonal giving that is so much the norm for me. I would be part of the actual bringing of real bikes to real people in a real place far removed from any familiar experience. I thought that would feel good. What I did not expect was how much the people in our group, representing three countries, and the people of the Tanzanian countryside, would give to me. It has been a lesson in optimism, hope, and generosity.
Imagine, if you will, a scene in which your daily labor is interrupted by a small horde of soaking wet cyclists of all colors and races, each speaking a language you barely understand, who appear on your porch to get out of a driving rain. Do you step outside to greet them and stand talking to them while the rain pounds the ground and waters swirl through gullies as our impromptu hosts did? Or do you let fear of strangers reign as I imagine myself doing under similar circumstances?
Imagine, too, that you are cultivating a massive field with just a rudimentary hoe, no tractor, no shovel, just the hoe, day after day. You see a group of dirty, sweaty, strange-looking cyclists ride by. Do you stop and shout encouragement, smile and answer, “Pole, Bibi.” (You go, Grandma!) as the last (me) struggles up the endless hill? There was not an unfriendly worker to be seen. Children who looked ten years old or less, tending small herds of goats or cows on impossibly barren land, smiled and greeted us as happily as the women. True, some had an initial fear of us Msungu (white folks) who made up the globalbike portion of the crowd, but they warmed up, shook hands, high-fived, after little encouragement. Again, no fear, optimism.
Imagine a group of girls, aged 12 to 24, united in their love of boxing and in their stories of the tough lives they led before finding Box Girls. Would you expect to learn about life lessons from these Kenyans? We did just that as first Sarah, then Ita, and last Tabitha urged us to have hope, to keep our goals in mind and to focus, use self-discipline to attain those goals.
And Kinjah’s Simbas, those energetic and sweet guys, riding slowly with the Bibi, coming forth with a strong hand to push me, literally, up one hellacious hill after another, teaching me Swahili and about their world.
I could go on and on. The list of inspiring people we met is a long list starting with folks on the plane, one heading to check on a school she helped start, another a musician giving concerts with African musicians in an effort to bring awareness about violence against women, others who ditched the corporate world to volunteer or start businesses in Tanzania where life would have a meaning they could live with. And on it goes.
So, transformed? Yes. I think of globalbike as a perfect local example of how one small group can effect true change in the world, person-to-person change. I saw that there are many others who throw themselves into the need, one person at a time, bringing real change, real hope into a world that one could fairly describe as bleak. They are not daunted by the magnitude of the task or the great distances, both physical and otherwise, between us citizens of the planet; they are workers in the field of human kindness. See a stranger, help a stranger. Simple, personal, effective, life-changing, world-changing.
Is this transformation permanent? I hope so. Time will tell.
Joan Tobey, 69, is a math teacher at the Spartanburg Day School. She rode her bicycle around Mount Kilimanjaro with globalbike.