I'm sure most of you have had the pleasure of passing through the village of Mutjiku, in the Caprivi Game Reserve region of Namibia. Maybe on your way to the hardware store in Rundu, or while running errands in Divundu. But I really shouldn't assume these things, so maybe a few details about this place and how we came to be here are in order.
Caprivi is a narrow strip of rugged land that extends like a panhandle off of the north east corner of Namibia. Sandwiched between Angola and Zambia to the north and Botswana to the south (mmmm, panhandle sandwich), the main feature of this area is the Kavango River which runs right through Mutjiku and is the source of water (and life, consequently) for the people of the village.
Mutjiku consists of parcels of land that are granted to individual families through regional tribal authorities. These parcels typically have family homesteads clustered on them, like Erasmus Kaveto's family plot where the Makveto bicycle shop will be located.
These family plots are used for both crop growing (about nine major types), animal herding (primarily cows, goats, and chickens), and for the family dwellings. One of the most incredible things in fact, are these domiciles. There are many variations, but the most common way they are built consists of finding certain types of termite-resistant wood for a simple frame, molding walls from clay, sand, and sometimes reed covering, and making thick thatched roofs from reeds bound together. These houses have a simple, sturdy, honest beauty, and the better ones are surprisingly cool even in the triple digit heat that comes on a typical day here.
We have been staying with our very gracious host Kami, who is a Peace Corps volunteer working on HIV/AIDS issues here in Caprivi. She has been extremely helpful to our project in too many ways to count, starting with the original connection to Erasmus and Ludwig. When the Bicycle Empowerment Network (BEN for short, an amazing group who have helped us greatly in our efforts) volunteered a bike as a prize for an HIV testing event that Kami was putting on, she became aware of their efforts and quickly became friends with Michael and Clarisse who run the operation in Namibia. Meanwhile, Erasmus and Ludwig just happened to ask their neighbor (Kami) to print out a plan for a bike shop project that they came up with and were looking for funding to make a reality. Kami got in touch with BEN, BEN got in touch with Mike's Bikes at the exact time we were searching for our next Sister Shop project, and the rest is history (or present, as it were).
Kami has lived in Namibia for three years, and her house is just up the road from what you might call Mutjiku proper (a crazy concept, really). We have found her home to be extremely charming, cozy, and surprisingly comfortable. She gets her water from a solar-operated bore pump, and even has just a bit of electricity now and then also from a small solar array. We have helped Erasmus and Ludwig procure a solar power system for their Sister Shop, but these systems are far from the norm around here. The vast majority of people in this area live entirely without running water or electricity.
Caprivi is the region in Namibia that is most impacted by the devastation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The infection rate per capita is roughly 37% here, compared to around 18% for the rest of the country. This is what brought Kami here to try to help make a difference, and giving the people easier access to testing and health care is one of the main reasons we are excited to be setting up our Sister Shop here.
Heavy loads are transported on sleds driven by oxen and smaller ones are moved on foot. Like in Gaborone, Botswana we found ourselves amazed with the overwhelming number of people walking. Everywhere we go in the Caprivi, there are always people walking, no matter how far away we are from anything, no matter how heavy the loads they carry, no matter what time of the day or night it is, people here walk.
Unlike in Gaborone, we are thrilled to see that there are at least a small number of people on bikes here! Not surprisingly, there is no private vehicle ownership at all in Mutjiku or in the nearby villages. When they were dreaming up the idea of a bike shop project, Erasmus and Ludwig actually conducted a survey about bicycle use here. They came up with 213 bicycles currently in service in the Caprivi region, and a startling 318 that are off the road awaiting repair.
With a total population of roughly 19,500, there is obviously a long way to go with increasing bicycle transit in Caprivi, but we're thrilled to be looking at tripling the number of bikes in use with the donation shipment. And what's more, with Makveto supplying much needed parts and mechanical service, the 318 bikes that are off the road will hopefully be up and running soon, where previously there was little hope for them at all.