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

the country.

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…

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5 Responses to Ayamye

  1. eric matthies says:

    Thank you for the kind review! Ayamye currently awaits judgement in several film festivals around the globe – we’ll be sure to let you know when and if it makes it through. Because of the rules in many of these festivals, we can not have any public screenings until the results are announced, but we will continue to show it to friends for feedback and reactions.

    To your questions: The four people we followed in the film were the only people we documented – no one ended up on the cutting room floor. The process of choosing the subjects was largely done within the village itself before we came, with our input coming via email to ensure we worked with a cross-section of age, sex and type of work the person engaged in. While I do think the experience of those four is reflective of the average VBP workshop participant, I also know that it is very difficult as a documentarian to observe, absorb and record a complete picture of what is going on in an individual’s life. We are subject to being told or shown what it is thought we want to hear or see. We are limited by time, both in the field and in researching information. Having said that, I do know that the tremendous positive impact of the bicycles on each participant and the village communities as a whole was palpable. Having a bicycle gives a person status in the village, much in the way a car would here. The bicycle, the tools and the knowledge of how to use them is shared within families and spread throughout the community. With the women, the power of participation is carried deeper by off-setting long standing myths that have previously limited the female population and prevented them access to adequate transportation. By gaining the status provided by the bicycles, the women who went through the workshops now set an example within the villages that benifits everyone. We certainly didn’t head out with an agenda to make a film that only reflected positive impact, but of the 60 people who participated in the workshops last year, every single bicycle was still in use when we returned 10 months later, each often shared by more people than had taken the classes. There were no examples that we could find on our follow up trip of a failed bicycle or disgruntled participant.

    #2 – yes, we can and will adjust the subtitles!

    Some additional comments:

    Within the complex personalities of our subjects and of the villagers as a whole, there were definitely conflicts and issues of ego that were not positive. While we were aware of these potentially negative threads, they were decidedly not a part of the story we were trying to tell as they had nothing to do with the bicycles themselves, nor could we possibly have gained enough of a perspective in just seven cummulative weeks to claim any expert opinion on rural Ghanaian life. We chose to focus on the program and it’s impact only.

    The bicycles collected state-side and used in the programs, while mainly ‘mountain bikes’, are often of the department or box-store variety. That is to say, they are designed to look more rugged than they really are. The components are often stamped steel or aluminum, sometimes plastic. While every bike brought into the village during the workshops was still being well maintained by it’s owner when we returned, Africa takes it’s toll on equipment. I would venture that even my own high-end bicycles would suffer in the harsh conditions of West Africa. However, due to the lower quality level of the parts on the bikes used in the program, I wonder how long they will actually hold together and continue to work. Of course, the resiliancy, determination and ingenuity of the Ghanaians will keep them rolling far longer than we could ever imagine by Western standards.

  2. Felix says:

    That’s amazing, how successful the program really is. Viva!

  3. david peckham/vbp director says:

    Thanks for your comments about the film, and I appreciate your skepticism about the project. We have held about 110 of these workshops in Ghana and over 2000 people have gotten bikes. Every year I visit old program sites, and volunteers also visit and report of the bikes and the people. I’d say that on average 15% are down after one year. Most of the bikes are repairable, and parts are available, but not easy to find. We try to build on the networks to make it easier for them to get parts.

    I’ve only once heard a complaint from someone who got a bike from one of our programs, and his neighbors told me, “Don’t mind him, he complains about everything, and he didn’t take care of it.” Commonly people say, “When can you come back and do more programs. We need more bikes.”

    For me one of the beautiful things about Ayamye is that they captured the story I hear again and again, in a way only a Ghanaian can tell, about what the bikes are doing for them. And you’re right, its not this good for everyone.

    Do we ever get snookered? You bet we do! Poverty, despair and hopelessness are fertile grounds for corruption, and just like lawyers in America, every rule and every program sends people to work to get around it. One of our rules is only one bike per person. I learned that a school principle had sent a young student to sit in the workshop (missing school), so he could get a second bike. Sometimes the person who loans the money to the workshop attendee seizes the bike for themselves, and can then sell it on the open market, double what he paid. Once in a while, someone doesn’t like the selection of bikes, and we give them their money back. I try real hard to minimize the corruption and extortion, but it is there. A big big deterrent is that its only bicycles, its half-price, and you have to sit through a day-long workshop. An excellent deal for the working poor, but too much trouble for a big con.

    The people we generally reach with bikes are the productive poor. Hard-working, productive people, with enough of a position in the community or family to gain access to $25. Many people tell us they saved the money over several months.

    Re: the IMF and World Bank, I think it’d be best if I direct you to an authority, former insider, Joseph Stiglitz. In my experience, IMF/World Bank are not about helping the poor, but about maintaining and strengthening the global economic domination of the West.

  4. eric matthies says:

    An update on the film –

    1: It’s been shortened to 40 minutes. The film now focuses on Nurse Letitia and Seth, while Mr. Ayim and Faustina still contribute important interviews. The film is faster paced and we feel that the information is presented in a more concise manner that is easier to absorb and understand – sustainable solutions work!

    2: The film will have it’s world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Jan. 26th and screening again Jan. 30th. Ayamye* has been nominated for a Social Justice Award.

    Screening times and locations at this link:


    3: More updates and information at the official film site:


    Thanks Felix for all of your support.

  5. Jenn Thomson says:

    Hi Felix,

    Small world! I was just googling the Ayamye film because my Dad, who lives near Boston and volunteers with Bikes Not Bombs there, just saw a screening of the film last night!! He was blown away at how much a bike can help people save money on relatively expensive and inconvenient motor transport, especially for a person with such an important social role as a nurse! I’m so thrilled that this film was made showing the realities of life in rural Ghana (representative of most rural life in Africa really) and that it is getting shown on some level, although modest, because it is so important for people to understand what life is like for so many people in the world, and how simple solutions can really make a big difference if we all do something, however modest, to help. Bravo Village Bicycle Project!!

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