activism

How a Young Sierra Leonean Is Fighting Poverty with Bicycles

Two wheels can make all the difference, as philanthropist and bike enthusiast Abdul Karim Kamara knows.

by Tom Owen
08 July 2019, 11:55am

Stylish. All photos: Tom Owen

"Stylish" is a nickname, but one so pervasive that you can't help but use in. All day and all night, at his home and at his shop in Lunsar, a town in western Sierra Leone, you hear: "Where Stylish?" The 26-year-old was first introduced to me as Abdul Karim Kamara, and for a long time I persisted with "Karim" – but eventually you just give in to the tide.

Stylish is a born organiser in one of the least-organised places you've ever seen. Earlier this year he won his country's Young Philanthropist of the Year award – a recognition of his work over the last six years, running a feeding programme in Lunsar every August, when the constant torrential rain makes it impossible to harvest crops and a lot of people in Sierra Leone go hungry. Last year he provided meals for 80 neighbourhood kids, making them attend maths and English lessons in exchange for a meal.

"They have to give something in return for the food," he tells me. "I don't want to just create another thing where I am giving and they are taking." The programme is funded entirely by donations from people he has personally met, both in Sierra Leone and abroad.

Stylish's main income is as a country manager for Village Bicycle Project (VBP) – a US-based charity that focuses on sustainable bicycle transportation in Africa. He delivers workshops all around the country, teaching people – particularly women and girls – how to ride bikes. Traditionally, women aren't taught how to ride because of nonsensical ideas about being able to lose your virginity from sitting on a bike saddle. To these young women, most of whom balance school with family duties, the bicycle can deliver a level of freedom and mobility that's otherwise inaccessible.

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Stylish repairing a bike and talking in his bike repair workshop.

Sierra Leone is a country reeling from the civil war that wracked the nation in the 1990s and 2000s. This was followed up in 2014 by the Ebola outbreak. Stylish's work focuses on bikes for good reason: "Having a bicycle helped me survive during Ebola," he tells me. "I was independent, I could move around without using taxis or sharing motorbikes."

Through his work for VBP, Stylish is getting more kids to school on time. A bike cuts commuting times and also improves a student’s alertness when they arrive. He shows me data he's begun collecting on the performance of those receiving bikes: attendance, grades, punctuality – all the lines go up according to his stats. He is rigorous about following up, too: if a student's grades slip, or they are late even once a term, he finds out why. Stylish's biggest problem, he says, is knowing whether the grades that headteachers send him are accurate. "The teachers see the benefits that the bike has on the child, so they don't want them to lose it," Stylish explains. "I'm not always sure if what they tell me is 100 percent the truth."

The bikes are mainly donations – the majority coming from VBP, but also from a UK charity called Re:cycle. They arrive in Sierra Leone in shipping containers, with a well-packed container able to hold 500 bikes. Stylish used to receive one container a year. He now gets six.

Stylish also works for Ride Sierra Leone – a fundraising event organised by Street Child, a UK-based NGO – as their head mechanic. He uses the connections he makes during Ride Sierra Leone to provide more opportunities for people in Lunsar. Last year, a British rider sponsored a girl from the community during her last term at school; she's on track to graduate this year and carry on to university with that support.

If Stylish has one thing you could call a passion project, it's his bike racing team, Lunsar Cycling Team. The club has around 30 members, the largest of any club in Sierra Leone, and a thriving women's team – something almost entirely missing from other clubs in the country. Many of the riders – the majority of whom are in their late-teens – work for him in his shop, with the small amount they earn going towards supporting their families.

Stylish covers the costs of training out of his own pocket, supplying riders with racing bikes at knock-down prices, as well as providing meals for them after training sessions. Every year, he puts on a bike race around Lunsar – the "Tour de Lunsar" – which attracts thousands of spectators. The top prize is LE840,000 (£77), which he secures through sponsorship.

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Stylish chilling at home with a friend.

It's been a long journey to this point. Stylish's passion for bikes started when, as a young boy, his mother got him an apprenticeship with a bike mechanic in the same compound they called home in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. As a teenager, he moved out of the city and opened a small shop in Lunsar, where he fixed people's bicycles. In 2013 he met American David Peckham, who was riding around the country, exploring Sierra Leone, searching out local mechanics and selling them bicycle tools.

"At first we couldn't believe it," Stylish tells me. "To have this white man come out of nowhere and then be asking us for money in exchange for his tools. There's a perception here that white people come and give you money – the fact that he was asking us for money was crazy."

Stylish's friends were incredulous when he handed over all the cash he had in the shop for a single maintenance tool that helps remove wheels quickly. He got Peckham's address in Freetown and made an appointment to meet him and buy more kit.

"Sierra Leone people are usually late," he says. "I wanted to show this guy I was serious, so I turned up an hour early. He was pretty surprised to see me outside his house at 8AM."

Despite the portents of their peculiar introduction, Peckham was no eccentric – he was the founder of VBP, and his tour of Sierra Leone was the first step towards bringing the project there. After getting back to the States, Peckham began sending Stylish containers full of knackered old bikes, eventually offering him his current job.

When you watch Stylish at work, you see his razor-sharp entrepreneurial sense; an innate ability to magic up money out of nowhere and turn lives around. When I ask him why, his answer is simple: "I just want to live happily. I want the people around me to be happy too."

Find out more about Village Bicycle Project and Lunsar Cycling Team.