We Could All Use a Little Pedal Power

By Andrew Thurston

So much for the fancy job title. When I meet the International Programs Director for nonprofit Bikes Not Bombs (BNB), he’s dismantling a greasy handlebar stem, his hands speckled with oil.

Before David Branigan (CAS’02) can send donated bikes to communities in Africa, Central America, and beyond, he first needs to help break them down for shipping. On this midwinter night, he’s teaching volunteers at BNB’s Boston headquarters how to pack used bicycles or strip them for parts. He’ll then arrange for the bikes to go overseas in support of sustainable community development projects—some go to locally owned bike stores and youth training centers, others to orphaned children, and (with a little re-engineering) some will even find new life powering washing machines and corn grinders. In backing such projects, BNB hopes to reduce conflict by engaging people in their communities and improving standards of living.

Bikes on display in front of the Ability Bikes retail store in Koforidua, Ghana.

A mural in the Ability Bikes retail store.

Sorting through donated bikes outside the Ability Bikes workshop.

All photos courtesy of David Branigan, Bikes Not Bombs

As Branigan tells me about his life and career, I start to work on a blue-and-white Pacific Rocket BMX that’s tricked out for street stunts with steel axle pegs on each wheel. The pegs are the first to go—they jut out too much for shipping—before I lower the seat post, fold down the handlebars, and reverse the pedals so they face in rather than out. Within minutes, my office-fresh hands are caked in grease and oil. Branigan tells me the bike will likely find a new home in Ghana or Nevis, the charity’s next shipping destinations, helping a child commute to school. Every year Bikes Not Bombs ships close to 5,000 used bicycles—which are brought in by individuals and organizations across eastern Massachusetts—and puts hundreds more to use in Boston-based youth programs.

“A bicycle helps more children go to school and be more productive in their studies and in the household,” says Branigan of the potential overseas benefits of my newly packed BMX. “In many developing countries, children provide labor toward the family economy. . . this could include farming, weeding, processing or cooking food for sale, producing goods for sale from locally available materials, selling goods in small family stores or in the market—all helping the family generate more income.”

“A bicycle helps more children go to school and be more productive in their studies and in the household.”

Adults benefit from bike ownership, too. Branigan recently spent a year in Koforidua, Ghana, establishing a co-op cycle store, Ability Bikes, backed by Bikes Not Bombs. He says that workers in the West African country may see half their wages disappear in transportation costs when forced to commute by bus or car: “A bike makes such an impact on peoples’ lives,” he adds.

Setting up Ability Bikes, which is now owned and operated by local Ghanaians with physical disabilities, brought the disparate strands of Branigan’s life together. Bikes have been a big part of his world since childhood: He worked as a mechanic in a cycle store from the age of 13 and his father was a prominent advocate for bike lanes in his home city of Philadelphia. But it was as an anthropology major at CAS that Branigan had his eyes opened to the “realities of Africa” and to his own potential to effect change: “I really began to see that, wow, what I say and think and do makes a difference in this world.”

That’s why the work in Koforidua was a breakthrough for him: “This is something I had wanted and worked for and cared about,” says Branigan, who’d first gone to Ghana with the Peace Corps after graduating from BU. “It makes my blood run, my heart pump. . . When I’m doing this work, I know I’m living, I know I’m doing my best for this world.”

Now armed with his impressive job title, he gets to combine the oily, greasy, on-the-ground labor with higher-level policy and project work. Branigan has been back to Ghana to check on progress at Ability Bikes and soon will be heading to Uganda to support a “local health center with bikes for community health workers.” He’s also planning trips to Tanzania, Guatemala, and Mexico to support ongoing projects.

“My impact now is tremendous,” he says. “I’m able to apply my experience in the field to. . . setting the goals and objectives of the international programs of Bikes Not Bombs.

“My method of development work is always about empowerment and leadership development of local groups. If the people who are benefiting from a project are the ones who have the power to maintain it, then their investment in the project is significant.”

But tonight is all about the raw materials. The bikes piled deep against the back wall are ready to be broken down for their new life overseas—those hands will have to stay grease-spattered for a few more hours.

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