Bicycles: transport for the masses (with an average occupancy of 1.8 persons per bike). The maximum I have seen is five on a pedal cycle – two parents and three children, but sadly I do not have photographic evidence to back it up. Usually made in China, bicycles here have a steel frame so are heavy and sturdy. The brake linkages are metal, not cable, but it doesn’t matter because they don’t work as there are no brake blocks. The saddles began by being properly sprung, moulded leather affairs (anyone remember “Brooks”?), but after a decade or so of use, they are bound together with rubber strapping. Sometimes the saddle is missing altogether.

A frequent riding style is to sit way back on the framework over the back wheel, with the back of the saddle (if present) pressing into your gut, and your arms stretched out to the handlebars. This probably appears cool to your mates, but looks very uncomfortable to me. And there is nowhere for your girlfriend to sit. Small boys ride large bicycles by avoiding the crossbar and riding lopsided, with one leg through the frame.

The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta has donated two new bicycles to the health centre for outreach work. They even had lights and brakes. And HIV/AIDS health education decals on the frame. Still made in China, mind you, but a real cut above the average bike in Mfuwe. They appeared one day and then vanished, never to be seen again. I doubt that the senior nurse in charge would relish cycling 15km to the furthest village to vaccinate the children; her BMI is about 40, I reckon.

One might think that it is difficult to carry much apart from bodies on a bike. Not at all. Many bikes are fitted with a wicker basket pannier over the back wheel, so you can bring vegetables to market. Some enterprising chaps sell bunches of bony little fish from their panniers. I have even seen a mobile shop outside the health centre when we are running an Under Fives clinic: a bike with a small clothes horse fitted in the pannier to display baby clothes and plastic tat.

Last time I was here, I took a blurry photograph of someone using a bicycle to transport a sofa. But he was pushing it, not riding it at the time, so that doesn’t count. I saw someone riding with another bicycle lashed sideways onto the “passenger seat” over the back wheel. This is marginally safer than cycling one bike, while holding the handlebars of another. The chap in the photograph below is carrying seven bamboo chairs. He will bring the dining table tomorrow.

Cycling over the Lupande River bridge
Cycling over the Lupande River bridge

By Dr Alfred Prunesquallor

Maverick doctor with 40 years experience, I reduced my NHS commitment in 2013. I am now enjoying being free lance, working where I am needed overseas. Now I am working in the UK helping with the current coronavirus pandemic.


  1. Now you’re showing me another of my ‘favourite things’ – basket-ware. We came home from Zambia with a set of chairs bought at the roadside, though they rather unravelled after a few years.

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