BIKE CULTURE - CHIPATA
From as early as four in the morning you will see them speeding or slowing, you will see them ascending or descending or you will see them carrying passengers or goods. These are the bicycles of Chipata that have now been embedded in the lifestyle and culture of the people of Eastern Province. The Chipata city council estimates that there are 20,000 registered bicycles but there could be more especially in the rural areas of the district.
But how did this culture begin? How did bicycles take such a strong center stage in the economic and social activities of the Zambian citizens of Eastern Province? The history can be traced back to the early days of country’s independence when the UNIP government through the First and Second National Development Plans embarked on promoting economic growth in all the provinces. Well, Chipata received its share of the ‘cake’ when a bicycle plant, Luangwa Bicycle factory was opened. This marked the fate of the bicycle as ‘king’ of Chipata for it has gained the status as a symbol of wealth in addition to being a means of transport. In the early 1970s when the bicycle was introduced it was also seen as a great sense of achievement to acquire one. Chipata with a population of about 452,428 is mainly a rural area with most people (59%) depending on subsistence farming (Central Statistical Office: 2010 Census). The bicycle has been important for the rural farmer, having the capacity to reach places that do not have passable roads. With time the bicycle business has grown, even after the closure of Luangwa bicycle plant in the 1990s, the two wheeled machine is still imported from as far as China. In fact in modern times the bicycle has evolved to compete as a dependable means public transport against the four wheelers. Some individuals own up to ten bicycles and employ cyclists to run them, transporting people and goods – the charges range from three to ten Zambian Kwacha depending on the distance but the price could be higher for the transportation of heavy and large goods.
But it has not been easy. One cyclist confessed they face a lot of challenges, especially with the coming of the mini-bus in the last four or five years, which initially used to charge the same fare as the bicycle. This saw a reduction in the dependence on the bicycle as a means of transport. The survivors in the business attribute it to the reduced fare of bicycle transport. The other challenge is the lack of infrastructure to support cycling. Apart from the main road that was recently constructed to include a cyclists’ track, the rest of the district does not have such important provisions hence the risks of accidents still remains high.
Nonetheless, cyclists still show a strong commitment to keeping the business afloat, for no matter how you look at it, the bicycle will continue to survive and remain dependable in Chipata and its immediate surrounding because it is inexpensive not only for the customer but for bicycle owners too who bear very low maintenance costs. When you think about it, the bicycle is a cultural symbol too for many people of Chipata, who take pride in its acquisition.