Thursday, December 8, 2011

In Ghana, Bikes Going 'Green'

It's been surprising to find, over the last year, that Ghana is becoming a center for the manufacture of bamboo bicycles.

Wait, did that just say bamboo bicycles?!


You mean real bicycles, that you can actually pedal, out of bamboo?


That's kind of what went through my head, anyway, when I stumbled across the bamboo idea.

I had no notion you could build a bicycle frame from the plant.  Or that bamboo bikes had been catching on, in the US and Europe at least, with the environmentally-conscious and hipster crowds.  But when I Googled "bikes in Ghana" sometime after moving here, there they were: bamboo bikes.


A couple months ago I got serious about reading up on these uber-cool pedaling machines.  Googling for more info, I found out that Craig Calfee - originator of the carbon-fiber bicycle and one of the first people to build a modern bamboo bike - was working with independent bamboo bike builders in Ghana and would be visiting soon.

Wait, no, he's in Ghana now.  Could I possibly meet up with him?

Why yes, after a flurry of phone calls and emails to track him down, I could.  Sweet.

Craig works with local builder Wisdom Toxla to test a frame.

I caught up with him at the bike shop his nonprofit Bamboosero organization runs in Accra.  Craig and Bamboosero support small, independent builders to make high-quality bamboo frames for export from Ghana to the US, where they justly command a price few Ghanaians are able or willing to pay.

Wisdom Toxla is Bamboosero's main bicycle builder in Ghana.  Once a Ghana national road cycling champion, he lives to make things.  As a teenager, he built a wooden bicycle that ended up in the local science museum as a model of home-grown engineering.  Now, he's turned to bamboo.

Since Craig introduced me to Wisdom at the Bamboosero shop, I've gone back to him twice to take advantage of his bike mechanic skills and hear more of his story.

Wisdom truing a wheel in Accra's Bamboosero bike shop.

I've also visited another Bamboosero shop, stopping in the town of Abompe on my recent bike trip from Accra to Kumasi, Ghana's second city and cultural capital.  Local builder Peasah took the time to meet with me on a Saturday afternoon in the hot season, giving me a tour of his bike workshop before pedaling off into the heat on his own bamboo wheels for a delayed meeting with a friend.

Peasah and his bamboo ride.

If you're in Ghana, or want to call up the Calfee Design workshop near Santa Cruz, CA, these 'green' and Made-in-Africa bikes are available for sale.  They're beautiful, with polished bamboo tubes fading into the organic, plant-fiber joints that hold everything together.

And, they perform well.  Reviewers much more technical than I say bamboo frames exhibit damping action as good as or better than carbon fiber, creating a great ride.

Another player in Ghana's bamboo bike scene is Bamboo Bikes Limited.  Financed by Ghanaian businessman Kwame Sarpong and with motivation and help from the Bamboo Bike Project at Columbia University's Earth Institute, this factory is aiming for full-scale production of low-cost bamboo bikes.   They hope their two-wheelers end up in the small towns and rural areas of Ghana and West Africa, providing affordable, locally-made transport empowerment to under-developed communities.

Factory builders ride samples of their work.

Part of my idea for biking to Kumasi was to visit this factory just outside the city.  I found their workers are fully trained and ready to put some bikes together.  After a delay in getting bike components into the country, they are presently swinging into full production mode, hoping to crank out hundreds of bicycles a year.

Beyond the obvious wow-factor of the bamboo bikes themselves, you know what's cool in all of this?  That Ghana, a nation on the supposedly struggling continent of Africa, is becoming known for a very contemporary and environmentally-leading technology.

I applaud.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Home for Art

I've always dreamed of having a nice house with an open lawn, creating some art, then turning the place into a gallery for my work.

Here in Accra, Parisian-trained expatriate artists Anna Kurtycz and Rudek van der Helm are living that dream. 

And not only that, they're doing one better, using their current show "Neither Black Nor White" to showcase the work of a select few Ghanaian artists as well.

Working under the artistic brand of "Studio Kurtycz," Anna and Rudek have shared their display space with local artists Isaac Konney, Kelvin Haizel, and Nii Obodai to run an exhibit from this past Wednesday, November 30 to Saturday, December 3.

I dropped in on the show's opening on Wednesday and absolutely loved what I found: a medley of engaging installations, photographs, video work, paintings, woodcuts, and prints all tucked fondly into well-crafted spaces around a manicured garden, a pool, and a few outbuildings.

Rudek told me they gave particular thought, for this show, to the use of lighting in shaping discrete and welcoming exhibit-spaces for the nighttime open-houses.  Their care and attention paid off: it's a magical night garden of lovingly-created, well-displayed, quality artworks.

A ghostly Rudek installation haunts the pool.

In a screened terrace, photos by Nii Obodai make inspired use of white space and blur to channel the harmony and devotion of a unique Accra-based community of Moslems and Christians.

Vibrant butterfly paintings by Kelvin Haizel float through a pool-side pavilion.

Beautifully-layered photographs of Accra's striking clothing store mannequins show off Anna's artistic city-wanderings.

And ethereal charcoal drawings by Isaac Konney celebrate the beauty-in-the-ordinary that is everywhere in this sweaty, gritty city.

There's even a participatory painting hung on the swingset, with visitors invited to 'paint' a Rudek self-portrait by hitting it with thrown 'eggs' of red dye.

An intriguing body of work.  A cool feast, in this hot season, for the eyes and the mind.

The show is on for two more days.  You can visit, according to the Studio Kurtycz website:

-today, Friday evening, from 6 to 9 pm
-or tomorrow, Saturday evening, from 4 to 8 pm.

Find their studio in Ringway Estate near Ako Adjei interchange, behind the Canadian High Commission and across from the SSNIT guest house.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pedaling to Kumasi

Kumasi - Ghana's 'second city' and its cultural capital - lies a few hundred kilometers north and west of Accra.  It has a sprawling open-air market, an Indian restaurant sometimes claimed to be the best in West Africa, a railway station that's been unused for quite awhile, and the joking-est tro-tro conductors around.

Crowds in Kumasi's market.

How do I know all this?  Three weeks ago, I rode my bicycle there from Accra.

Which makes me a legend to some.  "You pedaled all the way to Kumasi!  Are you crazy?  I flew there."

To others, I've fallen a bit short.  "Why yes, I remember that Accra-Kumasi stretch from my cross-continental bike tour back in the late nineties…"  (Ok, no one's said that to me yet, but I expect it to happen one day.)

For myself, it's a mixed picture: I sat my butt on that bike seat for three full days, and I made it.  But I took the VIP bus home.

This was the first real bike touring I'd done since riding across the US with my cousin Glen back in 2002.  Sure I did some out-and-back overnights here in Ghana, but this was to be a multi-day outing with some real distance to cover.  I'd have to buckle down.

And I did.  Sort of.

Day 1: 85 kilometers through hills from Accra to Koforidua.  Day 2: 110 kilometers from Koforidua to Nkawkaw, with a stop at the bamboo bike workshop in Abompe (more about that in a later post).  Day 3: 85 kilometers from Nkawkaw to a friend's house on the edge of Kumasi city.  And then another day of 30 or 40 kilometers riding around Kumasi and finally settling at a hotel in its downtown.

In a way, there's not much to report from all those kilometers.  I got on the road each morning for three days straight and pedaled until I thought it wise to stop - for a cold drink, or for lunch, or for the mid-afternoon break when all living and moving things should be shaded from the relentless tropical sun.

(And that sun was merciless.  From 11 am onwards my overriding thought became: how far can I go this time until I have to break for some shade and some cold liquid.)

To me, bike touring is all about being on the bike.  When I'm not on the bike, frankly, I get bored.  One of the most exciting things about traveling with my new rear rack and saddlebags was that I had enough cargo space to carry a book.  Something to keep my mind occupied when I wasn't in motion.

When I was in motion there were always little things to notice.  The man riding a bicycle with a plastic chair over his handlebars.  The orange-headed lizard who raced me (and won) up the hill to Aburi.  The laborer in a dirty yellow T-shirt laying down his machete to buy plastic packets of gin to spike his afternoon.  Water so cold vapor poured out the top of my bike bottle as I filled it.  A woman in an outdoor shower calling "Hello!" to me as I rode past, her chocolate shoulders dripping with soapsuds.  The "Only Jesus In Stock" store.  In cocoa-farm country, a whole town smelling like cocoa powder.

And, some more substantial memories.

-The joy of the early morning cool.  It was a struggle for me, a natural night owl, to get up and on the road as early as I should have.  In Ghana, the sun rises every day right around 6, and the wise bike tourer is pedaling by then, getting in the miles before the noon-day sun begins to addle the brain.  I usually managed to have my butt in the saddle by 7.  Which left me about an hour to enjoy any sort of morning coolness left in the air.  And boy, did I learn to savor that hour.

-The joy of a cold packet of Fan Ice soft serve ice cream on a hot day.  'Nuff said.

-Getting spanked by a teenage girl outside Mamfe.  Yes, spanked.  I was zipping downhill from Mamfe town and saw some kids horsing around on the road ahead.  They turned out to be teenage girls, who scattered to the side as I passed.  They yelled and laughed at me, as teenage girls will at sights less strange than a white man in biking gear whizzing through African hills.  And, as I glided past, one of them reached out with a stick and tapped me lightly on the butt.  Admirable aim.

-The marching band of Asankare.  Video below.

-Bowls of rice and beans with the chickens.  Restaurant kitchens can be quite slow in Ghana, and so I often turned to the side-of-the-road, under-the-tree, pot-over-charcoal-fire sort of eating establishments to get fuel for my legs.  You stop, the woman dishes out some rice and beans, you're eating.  Done.  These rice-and-bean moments were some of the best of my trip.  The beans were tasty, and I could just sit on the offered wooden bench and watch the street-life around me as hens scratched in the dirt under the plastic table and little yellow chickies ran across my shoes.

-The man who bought me my first Malta.  This was in a road-side bar called the "Hollywood Spot."  Which bore no resemblance at all to Hollywood.  But the man was kind, and called out to me as I sat sweating at a table, waiting for a drink.  "The sun is too hot for you!" he joked to me, but then was suitably impressed when he realized it was a bicycle and not a motorcycle I was riding to Kumasi.  He bought me a Guiness Malta, a sort of non-alcoholic version of Guiness beer.  I don't usually like these dark, malted drinks, but this one tasted sweet and thick and I downed it.

-Craggy hills and peaceful sunset at Nkawkaw.  A line of green hills had been on my right all day after I hit the main Kumasi-Accra road at the Bunso rest-stop junction.  Around Nkawkaw, as the sun set, they became particularly craggy and picturesque.  Maybe I'll get to bike into them one day.

For now, I'll have to just bike into the sunset.