WU student and peer cycle across Africa to spread understanding
When Aaron Bodansky and Eric Silverman announced their summer plans to bike through Africa, their friends and family reacted with shock and concern. They feared for the students’ safety in what was assumed to be an unstable, poverty-stricken and disease-ridden part of the world.
In an effort to combat such negative perceptions, Bodansky, a Washington University senior, and Silverman, a Skidmore College senior, founded their own non-profit organization called Cycle for Understanding.
They conceived the idea while both were studying abroad at the University of Cape Town in South Africa this past spring.
According to Bodansky, the organization seeks to “facilitate and actively promote a better understanding of the African continent to the Western World.”
“We realized if very well-educated friends of ours were so worried about us getting eaten by lions or chopped up by machetes that the average American must be very confused about Africa,” Bodansky wrote in an e-mail to Student Life.
Bodansky and Silverman chose to travel through Africa by biking, because it would allow them to be in direct contact with the locals and help them to show that the continent is not filled with violence and corruption but rather many generous and hospitable people.
The first mission of Cycle for Understanding was mapped across Africa, starting in Cape Town, South Africa, and ending in Nairobi, Kenya.
The two arrived in Nairobi late last week to a discounted stay in a five-star hotel and free meals. The U.S. Embassy then helped the two arrange a press conference with the country’s major newspapers, according to Bodansky.
Bodansky and Silverman said they were helped on their journey by local Africans on numerous occasions with everything from fixing their bikes to sheltering them.
“We have not been threatened a single time and have literally been rescued countless times by Africans from every country, or tribe, or social class,” Bodansky wrote.
Mungai Mutonya, senior lecturer in African & African American Studies and one of Bodansky’s professors, agrees there is a large disparity between the media’s portrayal of Africa and how Africa really is.
“There’s a lot of goodwill and hospitality in Africa. When you read about Africa, it’s always about death, disease, destruction. But that’s way far from the truth,” he said. “What I know and what the students experience when they get to Africa is totally different than what we read in the media about Africa.”
Bodansky said he does not even enjoy bicycling, but strongly believes that this is the most effective way to convey his message.
“It’s an incredible accomplishment, and I’m not surprised that it’s Aaron who accomplished this. He’s a very open-minded individual. If there’s anybody who can accomplish such a feat, it’s Aaron, and I’m so proud of what he has done,” Mutonya said.
Bodansky will take the fall 2009 semester off to continue his efforts with Cycle for Understanding.
To show the world the aspects of Africa that they feel the mass media fails to include in its coverage, Bodansky and Silverman are documenting their journey online in a blog.
“We have been in national newspapers in every country we have passed through, but to really
make a real change I need to crack into the U.S. media. Therefore I will be spending next semester working on U.S. media relations [and] compiling the documentary into a final product,” Bodansky wrote.
Bodansky wrote that the district commissioner in Nairobi gave the two a tour of some of the city’s impoverished areas. They plan to use information from the tour for their documentary.
Bodansky will also spend time raising money for the project.
For more information about Cycle for Understanding, visit the organization’s Web site at http://www.cycleforunderstanding.org.