For Karim Kamara, Village Bicycle Project (VBP) provided much more than just a bike to get to work; for Karim, they provided work to get to bikes! Karim is a member of the Village Bicycle Project Sierra Leone team who brings in and manages the distribution of bikes coming from organizations like Bikes for the World. He also travels around the country to provide workshops to villagers and students, especially young girls.
Karim lives in a small mining village in northern Sierra Leone known as Lunsar. When he was younger he lived in the capital city of Freetown (2 hours to the southwest) where he was first introduced to bikes and cycling. In Freetown, cycling was quite popular and as Karim got older he moved from riding bikes to repairing them. He worked in a local bike shop in Freetown learning the mechanical skills necessary to start and run his own shop.
Before Karim started high school he moved to Lunsar where schooling was much cheaper. He brought with him his mechanic skills and his passion for bikes. Karim started a small local repair shop in Lunsar, but without a huge cycling community his business remained small. Until Village Bicycle Project came to town.
In 2009 VBP founder Dave Peckham came to Sierra Leone, and specifically Lunsar. He quickly learned that many girls didn't have access to bikes and therefore never learned how to ride a bike. He approached a teacher in a local elementary school and said, let's get these girls some bikes!
Dave also found Karim in his shop and asked to see his tool bench. Dave noticed Karim was working with a small number of average tools and offered to sell him some nicer, bike specific tools. Once Dave realized Karim's dedication and passion for bikes, he ended giving him a set of tools for free.
As VBP started introducing bikes to students in Lunsar, they brought them first to Karim for repair and his business started to grow. So did his reputation in the community as a fair and skilled bike mechanic. When VBP began their One Day Workshops, Karim became involved in that training and eventually came on board as a paid VBP trainer. He is now the countrywide project manager.
Karim now works with VBP, still manages his bike shop, and heads up a Lunsar cycling team. When he first came to town and brought this idea with him from Freetown where racing was already popular, his friends just laughed at him and shook their heads. In Lunsar, bikes were used to haul heavy loads. There weren't many bikes and the ones they had were heavy one speed workhorses, not something you could race.
But as VBP continued to bring all types of bikes to Sierra Leone...and Lunsar...that mentally began to change. At first, given the terrain and bikes available, the team began racing on wide tired mountain bikes, but even that is changing. Karim has been working with Taylor Jones, BfW Executive Director (and fellow racer) to have our shipments include nicer road bikes suitable for going fast. Taylor has also been working with local bike clubs to collect old race kits and jerseys for Karim's team. He now has 18 men and 8 women representing the Lunsar Cycling Team. They are getting faster, harder to beat, and they are looking more and more stylish on the race course!