PITTSFIELD — Generous Berkshire County residents have gifted 26 repurposed bicycles to adults and children in an African village for their own means of personal transportation.
The bikes had been donated to the Old Stone Mill Center, where they were retrofitted with wooden racks so residents of Bikie and two neighboring villages in the Republic of Congo can haul 100 pounds or more of crops and goods to market, get children to school or handle passengers.
Volunteers on Sunday morning loaded the adapted bikes into a shipping container parked at Affordable Self Storage on Fourth St. The pedal-powered transports and other repurposed household items will cost $4,200, paid by four individuals, to ship from New York City to Bikie, a nearly two month journey, according to Pauline Dongala.
The Great Barrington resident, originally from Bikie in the Lekoumou region of the country, says the bicycles are a luxury many in her home village can’t afford. The chief mode of transportation is walking, so most schoolchildren have to trek 4 miles or more to fetch water and produce for the home, and to get to school every day.
“People [of Bikie] are happy to be helped. It’s a reward for us to help people over there,” she told an Eagle reporter. “Getting a gift from a place far away is life-changing.”
Dongala, along with Old Stone owners Leni Fried and Mike Augspurger, hope the shipment is the first of many bicycles to Bikie. With 16 of the 26 bikes going to children at a school of 118 students, the center has begun a program whereby sponsors pay $65 for the parts needed to restore and retrofit the bikes. The center has some 300 unwanted bikes in storage ready to be repurposed, but more adult bikes are needed, said Augspurger.
“What is surplus in our country is a necessity in Pauline’s country,” Fried said of the second-hand bikes.
Old Stone Mill Center is dedicated to taking industrial surplus and turning it into reusable items for those in need. Augspurger specializes in repairing and modifying using skills he has in machining, modifying and manufacturing bicycles.
Other repurposed materials collected at the center making the voyage:
— Seed/feed and brew bags in rolls of 25 are surplus here, but valuable in Bikie selling for as much as $5 apiece in the local market. They are used if available to carry cassava, charcoal and produce to market often by bicycle.
— Bicycle inner tubes with punctures will be sent and used there to strap water and crops on a bike, like a bungie cord.
— Irrigation Drip tape from our farm fields.
For the past four years, Dongala has been sending supplies back to Bikie. Her philanthropic effort got a boost last summer when she first visited Old Stone Mill Center to pick up discarded linens such as sheets, hospital gowns and scrubs that she shipped to a rural hospital in her home country.
When Dongala mentioned the need for bicycles, Fried and Augspurger offered to help with Bikie’s transportation needs.
There are some bikes in the Bikie area, but they are nearly all made for adults and are too high off the ground for the kids to reach the pedals, leaving them to push the bikes to carry supplies like a two-wheeled shopping cart.
“These bikes are going to be a necessity. Getting a bike for the children is exciting and they won’t have to walk for miles,” Dongala said.
To modify the bikes for the villagers’ needs, Augspurger and friends mount a heavy-duty wooden shelf, or rack, on each bike. They often use parts from other bikes to upgrade the repurposed ones. They also have to switch to pedals that are less painful for the riders to use with bare feet.
Augspurger will soon offer a class in how to adapt the bikes for Bikie, with all skill levels welcome.
“It’s a way to give back to the community, learn a skill and a way to reuse the bikes,” he said.