Coming soon to a film festival near you (we hope): Ayamye,
a wonderful, heart-warming documentary by my friends Tricia Todd and Eric Matthies,
about the Village Bicycle Project. If
you want to watch it, let me know, and I’ll see if I can’t get a DVD to you
There’s nothing particularly complicated about the film: Todd and Matthies
follow a shipment of bicycles from Boston to Ghana, where they change peoples’
lives. The Village Bicycle Project is clearly run by dedicated professionals
who know what they’re doing and do it very well, and if you’re in a charitable
state of mind there are many worse places to send
your money. Check out the website for more details, or, of course, the film.
The film is structured well. It starts with the bicycles being sent over to
Accra; then we learn the stories of four individuals who will shortly be getting
bikes. They get their bikes, the filmmakers leave, and then they return a year
later to see how the lives of the individuals, and the other people in their
villages, have changed. The difference a bike can make in rural Ghana is amazing,
and you finish the film desperately wanting to send thousands more bikes to
I was mildly annoyed by some slightly irrelevant IMF bashing at the beginning
from some of the Westerners involved in the project: I suspect that they haven’t
actually met the IMF and World Bank officials who work very hard on poverty
reduction in the country and whom they criticise in a superficial and knee-jerk
manner. But their anti-globalization rhetoric thankfully doesn’t correspond
to wide-eyed idealism in the field. They’ve made a conscious decision, for instance,
to sell all their bikes, rather than giving them away. This means that Ghana’s
poorest don’t have access to the bikes, but it’s also a very smart decision.
If the bikes were given away, they’d probably end up with the relatively rich
and powerful anyway, either because those people could maneuver themselves to
the front of the queue, or because they would simply buy the bikes from whomever
they were given to. Selling the bikes means that the recipients, many of whom
take out loans to buy them, put their bikes to the best possible use. After
all, all of us have a tendency to value things we’ve paid a lot for over things
we’ve received for free.
And because the Village Bicycle Project doesn’t give bikes away, it can do
something more important – give bike tools away. It’s educating
bike mechanics in every village it’s giving bikes away, extending the lifespan
of the machines and giving villagers an important and valuable skill.
I have two questions about Ayamye which I hope the filmmakers will answer in
the comments. The first is substantive: how many villagers did you follow for
this film? Was it just the four you ended up using in the film, or were there
more who ended up on the editing room floor? And are the experiences of those
four Ghanaians really representative of the experiences of most of the VBP bicycle
recipients? We all know that aid and charity projects in Africa are horribly
frustrating and demoralizing at times: it hardly seems feasible that this one
has so much visible success and so little visible failure.
Secondly, a tiny quibble: is there any way you can change "formally"
in the subtitles to "formerly"? I fear your transcriber wasn’t perfect…