A recent story in Wired magazine, “The Roots of Dirt: How Mountain Bikes Went From Clunkers to Global Phenomenon,” brings to mind a brief personal experience with the genre in Guinea, West Africa in the mid-1980s. Since bicycling in the Vienna, Virginia area was a topic on this blog previously, I thought it would be interesting to recount this rather different bicycling scenario. And because this also coincided with the restarting of Peace Corps in Guinea, it additionally provides an opportunity to relate some of that history, which I did not find elsewhere on the web.1
In January 1986 I brought a new BMX Mongoose ATB Pro (picture on left from the BMX 1985 catalog, via VintageMongoose.com) to my new Peace Corps post in Pita, a town in the middle of the Futa Jalon2 highlands – perfect country for cross-country biking.
At the time, this Mongoose had very favorable reviews. I purchased mine in suburban Chicago for something on the order of US$300, including a rack for the back (this was to be used for work) and mud guards (I knew the roads & weather). Before discussing how I got it there, and used it, here is some context on how I came to Peace Corps Guinea and had the opportunity to choose a bicycle to take along.
Peace Corps’ return to Guinea
In 1984, following the death of Guinea’s long-time dictator, Sékou Touré, that country’s government requested that Peace Corps be re-established in the country. (The story I heard was that this interest was first conveyed to then US Vice-President Bush during the latter’s short visit to Conakry for Touré’s funeral.) Peace Corps had been in Guinea during two brief periods in the 1960s, and despite having to leave due to political issues related to Touré’s rule, had apparently retained a positive image.
So the Peace Corps administration fast-tracked its return to Guinea. The normal Peace Corps procedure for (re)entering a country, as I learned much later, was to first have a team evaluate the potential based on several criteria, and then to bring in limited staff to set up an office and identify volunteer work assignments and posts, and then to bring in new Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs). In this case the sequence was sort of reversed, bringing experienced PCVs in first.
Carroll Bouchard, who was at about this time transitioning from serving as Peace Corps Country Director in Burkina Faso to filling the same position in Senegal, was asked to lead the process. Somewhere along the line, a specialist named R.J. Benn was brought in to research and report on aspects of getting Peace Corps going there again, including specifics of the volunteer assignments. Chris Kopp, the Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD) for forestry in Senegal also participated in the process.
So, sometime during the rainy season of 1985, four volunteers responded to the internal Peace Corps offer to extend their service to go to Guinea – three from Senegal, and me from Mali. We were convened for a week-long orientation in the beginning of October at the PC/Senegal training site in Thiès. The plan was for two of the group with more agronomic background to work with a USAID-funded agriculture research station in Faranah, and the two others with reforestation background, including me, to work with a “community forestry“/agroforestry project in Pita, whose USAID funding was coming to an end. Prior to the conclusion of the orientation, however, the two scheduled to go to Faranah dropped out, each for their own reasons.
The two remaining – Phil Comte and I – then went to Guinea to start work with the USAID “Projet Forêts Communautaires.” The plan was to meet all the principals in the forestry service (including the director, Kalidou Diallo), USAID (including Mark Wentling and Bob Hellyer), the US Embassy, and of course the project in Pita (including David Laframboise, the outgoing USAID project head, and M. Sangaré, the Guinean project director). After 6 weeks there was a break – the home leave given extending volunteers plus vacation time to cover from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day – and then return to Guinea.
The mountain bike idea
Personally I was primed to the idea of a bicycle even though I enjoyed the dirt bikes that we rural development volunteers were assigned in those days. When in Djenné, Mali, I fixed up the unused bicycle of the neighbor family I ate with (the household of Madani Koné in Kanafa), and and used it from time to time to go to work in the project nursery on the other side of town (rather a long walk, but also kind of short for a motorcycle every day). Also, there was a PCV in another part of Mali – Koulikoro as I recall – who brought a mountain bike back from a US vacation break. It should be noted that PCV teachers based in towns were assigned bicycles as a matter of course, so volunteers on bikes was by no means a novelty, but mountain bikes were.
I do not recall any specific conversations on the topic with Phil or anyone else at the end of 1985, but two main factors made bringing mountain bikes back to Pita an attractive idea:
- the Futa Jalon, a beautiful rolling plateau region, was ideal for that kind of biking – all roads off the main highway from Mamou to Labé were unpaved and unimproved, but mostly hard clay as opposed to sand or other loose material, and there were not nearly as many thorny tree species as in the Sahel; and
- the project’s CJ-7 and CJ-8 Jeeps were a scary proposition to run on a regular basis – despite their image they were not built for rough roads, and needed frequent repairs often without proper parts or “Jeep special tools” (one of the vehicles with brake problems was involved in the death of a child before we arrived).
So Phil and I each decided to bring mountain bikes back with us.
International travel with bicycles
My return flight originated at Chicago O’Hare airport o/a January 2, 1986. The procedure for traveling with a bicycle, in those days at least, was fairly easy and straightforward. Narrow bicycle boxes were available from the airline, and to fit one in, it was necessary to loosen and turn the handlebars. Fortunately the airline (which one, I forget now) had tools available for the latter task when people forgot to bring their own.
I met up with Phil at JFK International in New York for the flight to Dakar and then Conakry. At Conakry airport we actually had to go out onto the tarmac to call the baggage handlers’ attention to the bike boxes that hadn’t been offloaded.
Mountain bikes and Peace Corps/Guinea
We were met in Conakry by the new Peace Corps Country Director for Guinea, Jerry Pasela, who was already busy finding an office and residence location. It was during this time that the formal agreement was signed to re-establish Peace Corps in Guinea after a 19-year absence.
On my first spin on the Mongoose in Conakry I shifted gears and something unexpected happened. The rear rack had been retrofitted with the screw in such an orientation that it would snag the chain, in this case pulling the derailleur and bending the flange on which it was mounted (that was done at the shop, but I should have checked). Fortunately it was possible to bend it back without the alloy cracking, so the bike needed no serious repair and worked fine.
Before going up to Pita, Phil decided to terminate his stay for personal reasons. (He sold his bike – as I recall, to one of the Marine guards at the embassy in Conakry.) That meant that for the next nine months or so, I was the only PCV in country.
Mongoose in Futa Jalon
In Pita, a small upcountry town in a nation that had been largely closed off for years, no one had seen a bike like this. But then, folks were already used to seeing things they hadn’t before. Still, an obvious foreigner on a bike of novel design naturally got attention.
It was probably not just coincidence that shortly after moving in, a nice thin-tired racing bike appeared briefly on the streets (I never met the owner – probably the father of the rider I saw from a distance – who must have had it in storage).3 The Mongoose, however, was made for all the unpaved sidestreets of Pita and roads beyond.
I took the bike on several trips related to work, the longest of which was to Timbi Madina about 30 kilometers to the west. It was a really nice experience taking roads on bike that I had previously taken in a Jeep – with the slower pace you take in a lot more of the nature, visually as well as aurally. A totally different appreciation of the environment. And of distance and terrain. These were not easy jaunts as the terrain is mostly hilly. I remember one road to a village whose name I forget being basically a series of hard climbs and careful descents. The way to Timbi Madina was more like the top of the plateau, or perhaps it seemed more level because the route chosen for that frequently-used road minimized steep passages.
The main problem with using the bike, however, turned out to be that as a mode of transportation it did not facilitate involvement of my counterparts in field visits.
Honda vs. BMX (vs. Jeep)
Not too much later, my Peace Corps issue motorcycle – a Honda 125cc dirt bike – was delivered.4 This changed the transportation and work equation. The Jeeps in theory could now be reserved for instances involving transport of multiple staff, materials for nurseries, or seedlings for outplanting. For regular extension and monitoring of activities, I could go with one of the Pita-based staff on the moto.
So, soon after the moto arrived, the mountain bike was relegated mainly to in-town travel.
As a practical matter, my work as the only PCV attached to the project (instead of one of two) expanded over a wider area than originally foreseen. That territory, as it were, then expanded further with site selection in preparation for a new group of volunteers, and my subsequent decision to stay on as volunteer-leader when they were posted in September 1986.
Jerry was during this time building the Peace Corps administrative staff with local hires from Guinea – including an APCD for administration, Tafsir Thiam, and at least one third-country national – but there was no programming APCD until after I left in July 1987, so in some ways I served as kind of a brevet APCD.
On to other roads
All in all, this BMX Mongoose was a worthwhile investment. Even with regular use only on the hills and unpaved roads of Pita, and a limited number of trips out of town, it was a nice way to get around. And often the best way to do so.
On leaving Pita, I sold it to Jan Cerny, a Czech forestry expert with the FAO project also based in Pita, who apparently had done bicycle racing in the past.
Much later, Peace Corps worldwide moved in a big way to mountain bikes for volunteers as it scaled back use of motorcycles. I have not seen any documents about that decision or ensuing transition, which was well underway by the time I joined the Peace Corps staff as an APCD in Niger. In any event, Peace Corps’ use of mountain bikes fits in a less-noticed utilitarian dimension of the “global phenomenon” that the Wired article alludes to.
My next bike was in East Lansing, Michigan a few years later, when my wife and I bought a pair of used bicycles for use on Michigan State University campus. The next one after was a hybrid that I purchased to take to Niger, which got minimal use in Niamey then went into storage when we relocated to China (in Chengdu I borrowed my wife’s bicycle sometimes to commute to work). I’m still using that same bike that went to Niger – with a couple of new wheel rims to replace the ones bent in the Vienna accident.
(Thanks to Carroll Bouchard, Bob Hellyer, and Mark Wentling for their help with information. Needless to say, any errors in this blog article are mine.)
1. Other accounts of PC/Guinea history, such as on the Friends of Guinea site, do not go into any detail about this period. This blog article is not intended to fully cover that gap.
2. The region name is also spelled Fouta Djallon or Fouta Djalon in French, and Fuuta Jaloo or Fuuta Jalon in Pular.
3. It is tempting to make a superficial comparison with Conakry for the occasional out-of-the-ordinary vehicles one used to spot on its streets back then.
4. This was planned, and typical for rural development PCVs in that era. Many Americans familiar with motorcycles scoff at a 100cc or 125 cc, but this size and power was ideal for rural development work. Even carrying a passenger. I hope to discuss Peace Corps and motorcycles in depth at another time.