Motorcycle Riders

3 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger, Michael Brunton/London and Simon Robinson/Johannesburg

The job of fixing the African health-care system takes more than physicians and politicians. If you really want to get the continent onto its feet, it’s increasingly clear that you should also have a good motorcycle mechanic on hand. In a land where roads are often busted, rutted or simply nonexistent, nothing beats a bike for getting medicine to the people and people to the hospital. And nothing beats Riders for Health for seeing to it that that job gets done.

The problem of mobility is often overlooked by health-care planners wrestling with African epidemics, but it’s one that consumes Barry and Andrea Coleman, a husband-and-wife team with decidedly nonmedical résumés. Barry, 59, worked as a motorcycling correspondent and feature writer for the Guardian newspaper in Britain. Andrea’s motorcycle roots run deeper: she was a pro rider for five years and is the granddaughter of a race organizer, daughter of an engineer and widow of a rider who died in a 1979 crash. In the years following the accident, she married Barry and went to work as the public relations manager for American motorcycle race champion Randy Mamola, 45. In 1986 Mamola decided to lend some of his considerable prestige and fund-raising ability to charitable work. “Randy wanted to help children,” says Andrea, 58, “and we wanted those children to be in Africa.”

Mamola and the Colemans contacted representatives of Save the Children, who told them that one of the biggest problems they had in getting children immunized was reaching the ones in remote villages. Save the Children sent Mamola and the Colemans to Somalia, where they saw the woeful state of the roads. But they noticed that the countryside was littered with abandoned motorbikes, left by earlier aid workers who didn’t know how to fit an oil filter or tighten a chain. If Mamola and the Colemans could import drivers who could handle the roads and maintain the bikes, a whole fleet of vehicles could be put back to work. “Things all came together,” says Andrea.

Over the next few years, the threesome set up pilot programs in Uganda and Gambia, where with the support of Save the Children and the local governments, they helped acquire motorcycles and train riders and technicians. In Lesotho they built a fleet of 47 bikes that delivered health-care services from 1991 to 1996 without a breakdown. By the end of that period, the Colemans were running Riders for Health as an independent organization and had expanded into Ghana and Zimbabwe, where they introduced a motorcycle-and-sidecar combination that can be used as a mini-ambulance and double as a water pump when the bike is stationary.

“It was unreasonable for a woman in labor to be taken to a hospital in a wheelbarrow,” says Andrea. “A motorcycle will do that job beautifully, and if you run it properly, it will last five years.”

Riders for Health recently expanded into Gambia and Nigeria and diversified its fleet to include refrigerated trucks, minivans and ambulances. Zimbabwe is one of the group’s showcase countries, with 1,000 vehicles, each of which is responsible for delivering health care to a region that may contain 20,000 patients. In the country’s Binga district alone, deaths from malaria plunged 20% thanks to the ability of motorcycles to deliver mosquito-resistant bed nets and keep health-care workers mobile. As the Colemans have shown, when you keep workers mobile, you keep people alive.

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