Chuck Regier, curator of exhibits at Kauffman Museum in North Newton, spent many of his formative years in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but it was a return trip in 2008 that proved to be most impactful in some of his current work.
That work — helping the Congolese manufacture bamboo bicycles — was the highlight of a presentation during Bethel College Life Enrichment Wednesday morning, with Regier relating the origins and the evolution of the project.
Regier and his family left the Congo in 1976. Some 30 years later, his father, Fremont (who had been dealing with illness), wanted to make one last trip, so the Regiers headed back in 2008.
Little evidence remained of the work Fremont did to help the local agriculture when he was originally in the Congo, during the 50s and 60s, but Chuck noted that was not a surprise.
"That was discouraging, but not unexpected," Chuck said.
As funding began to trail off, so, too, did the progress of programs Fremont had started. However, during the span of the Regiers' absence, an agricultural cooperative was formed in the village they visited to help address some of the modern issues.
Questioning if the Regiers could partner with the Congolese villagers on this new endeavor is when the father and son came to find out about the villagers needs regarding one of their most relied upon forms of transportation — bicycles.
Bikes are relied on as the predominant method of getting produce to market and, in turn, earning revenue for the villages. Fremont, wanting to honor that request for aid, suggested purchasing imported bicycles outright for the villagers. Chuck and fellow volunteer Harlan Bartel — an engineer at Excel Industries — argued for a more long-term solution.
Friends of Fremont was formed as way to provide for villagers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with funds raised to purchase 104 bicycles in 2009. As Chuck and Bartel argued, though, it was a short-term fix; the bikes began breaking down in a matter of months.
Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and you provide him with an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime. That's the philosophy Chuck and Bartel embraced. With the latter's engineering experience and the former's own background — majoring in Industrial Arts while at Bethel College, as well as working on exhibits at Kauffman since 1985 —they felt there was an opportunity to educate the Congolese villagers and create a more dynamic solution to their problem.
Bartel than came across Californian bike builder Craig Calfee, who happened to be interested in alternative modes of transportation and was developing bamboo bicycles elsewhere in Africa.
Teaming with Calfee, Chuck travelled to Ghana and the Congo in 2013 in an effort to educate villagers on the manufacturing process — demonstrating how the bicycle frames can be built from bamboo, how the bamboo fiber can be used to fasten the parts, etc. — with the hopes of establishing local workshops for fabrication.
After demonstrating with a sample bike, as well as getting input from the villagers on what local resources could aid the process, Chuck noted the group felt good about that initial footwork.
"It felt like we'd had success, we'd made connections there, built relationships and this thing was going to work," Chuck said.
Efforts were pursued to raise funds through organizations doing similar projects in nearby areas, like Hope International Development Agency, so Chuck and Calfee could continue sending parts to the Congolese villagers and keep the cycle of production going.
Returning in 2015, Chuck and Calfee found there were some issues with progress — in terms of both getting parts and finding the right parts for the conditions.
"Little, simple rubber parts would quickly fall apart under the sweat and heat of those conditions," Chuck said.
Waiting for shipments of parts also led to a turnover of the initial workforce, but Chuck noted it was clear the locals had bought in and made the process their own and there was much excitement about the work they were doing — even if the end result wasn't always a fully-functioning bicycle.
Over the past two years, escalation of violence in the Congo has made it tougher to get the parts to the villages (raising costs as well) and for Chuck and Calfee to check back in on production, but they hope to be able to do just that and expand the project in the near future.
"Right now, it feels discouraging, but we're in this thing for the long haul and look forward to the time when we can go back," Chuck said.
To learn more about the Congo Transport to Market Bicycle Project, visit its Facebook page.