Third-World Wheeling
by Patrick A. Moore (February 2006)

I was very fortunate to have grown up on the Indian Subcontinent and in East Africa, all hugely poor by American standards. Bicycles were, and are, a sort of intermediate technology that were within the financial reach of a good many of the population, though by no means all; and we are talking of cheap bikes that cost, what, probably the equivalent of $50 or so.

The attitude of most of those who can afford them toward bicycles in these areas is almost wholly utilitarian, and from what I saw, not even very practical. Bikes are ridden without any but the most essential maintenance (ie, when you can no longer ride it, you get it fixed), and bald tires, uselessly adjusted brakes, broken spot welded frames, blockless pedals, saddles with flattened springs, burst cushions, and frames wire tied to the top tube, and other things like this were the rule rather than the exception.

I did notice in India, which was even poorer at the time (60s and early 70s) than Kenya, some riders did take a slight artistic interest in their bikes, but this was your typical village cottage art industry approach, with gaudy mirrors, handlebar streamers, fancy seatcovers, and the like--though this may have only showed that young crypto-professional men in Kenya with a tiny bit of discretionary income were able to afford the bus or even a motor scooter, while their poorer Indian peers were limited to dressing up the vehicle they could afford.

Our first cook in Kenya (an interesting aside: a Kikuyu, he had been rounded up with thousands of others and interned during the Mau Mau emergency) not only kept his 3d world roadster in good repair and oiled and shiny, but he wore ironed pants and shirt. Our askari, on the other hand, rode his bike into the ground: in a tinkering fit I renovated it and had a 3 speed hub installed; but he simply rode it until it broke, then kept riding it in 3d gear until I got frustrated and had another single speed hub installed in its place. Our gardener preferred to spend his extra cash on beer. The point is, that the askari's bike was the rule rather than the exception.

And yes, you had innumerable roadside bicycle repair men who, with hammer, big brass pump, pan of water, and tin of glue, kept these bikes on the road...more or less.

For what it's worth, I don't think these (by American standards) abysmally poor people were any less happy than my fellow Americans; I sometimes think that our consumerized way of life is a huge load on our shoulders, keeping us from enjoying the real pleasures that have been mankind's for millenia: sitting around talking, dozing, making things with our hands. No insurance, mortgage payments, schedules, traffic, schools, extra-curricular sports, driving to this or that amusement or task, television, iPods, etc etc etc...just the earth, the sky, plenty of time, and each other.

Patrick A. Moore