It may look like just a bicycle...

Alice* used to get sick regularly. Photo: Corinna Kern
Alice* used to get sick regularly. Photo: Corinna Kern

For some young people, the road to education can be long and arduous – quite literally. In Balaka District, southern Malawi, where many schoolgirls live up to 25km from the classroom, getting there used to be a struggle. There were no buses or cars to transport them to school – they had to walk.

The two-hour journeys on foot were exhausting. Many of the students couldn’t concentrate when they eventually arrived at school; others simply stayed at home despite being desperate to learn. Some would eventually drop out altogether.

It was a vicious cycle – one that Oxfam decided to tackle by distributing bikes to schoolgirls in the region. Esnat*, one of 30 students to receive a bicycle, used to make a five-hour roundtrip to school on foot. "The journey was hard," says the 15-year-old pupil, who lives 25km from her school. "I would be tired and used to doze off in class."

Left: Esnat* with her Oxfam bike. Photo: Corinna Kern. Right: Zainab* was always late for school. Photo: Corinna Kern.
Esnat* with her Oxfam bike. Photo: Corinna Kern.

Zainab* was always late for school. Photo: Corinna Kern
Zainab* was always late for school. Photo: Corinna Kern

"I would sleep when I got home, I didn’t study as I was too tried. My body and legs would ache; sometimes I would skip lessons. I was underperforming in my lessons because I was either absent or not concentrating."

Since getting a bike, Esnat* no longer feels as tired and can study properly: "I am excited about my bike; I will be able to complete my education. Now it takes less than one hour to get to school. I start lessons with my friends so I feel equal to them.

"I am excited about my bike; I will be able to complete my education. Now it takes less than one hour to get to school. I start lessons with my friends so I feel equal to them. – Esnat*

"I want to be a nurse. I have had that passion ever since I was younger. I want to help the sick and my community because we don’t have many nurses. I want to earn money to help my family."

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Another schoolgirl who benefitted from Oxfam’s bike project is 14-year-old Alice*, who also wants to be a nurse. Describing her old commute to school as a "bad experience," she says: "I would go to school on Monday but then on a Tuesday I would be absent as I was so sick and tired. I would miss one day a week and go in four days. I forced myself to go. I was arriving at school so tired. I couldn’t concentrate as had I no time to rest. I tried to work hard but I was just so tired."
 

Left: Girls from Chembera secondary school, Chembera village, Balaka District, with their bicycles. Photo: Corinna Kern.
Girls from Chembera secondary school, Chembera village, Balaka District, with their bicycles. Photo: Corinna Kern.

Alice* used to get sick regularly. Photo: Corinna Kern
Alice* used to get sick regularly. Photo: Corinna Kern

"We got the bikes two weeks ago. I felt excited and hoped that I would do better in class. Now I travel the same distance but I am not as tired. I still leave at 6AM but now I get to school at 6:30AM. I am hopeful that I will finish my education and get a good job."

Before she got her bike, Zainab* – who lives 18km from school – was always late for class and often missed out on exams. "I was so tired, I would spend lots of time stopping on the way to rest my legs so I would be late for school," says Zainab* (15). "I would miss out on exams and there was no way to make up classes. If you missed a lesson that lesson would be gone. Now I don’t miss any lessons."

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*Names changed
**First published by Oxfam Ireland by Ben Clancy.

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