Who hasn’t heard their parents joking about back in their day when they had to walk two miles to school through blizzards and uphill both ways?
But there are places in the world where it really is nearly that hard to get to school. In Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka, it’s not unusual for children to have to walk as far as eight miles through blistering, near-100-degree heat. (Thankfully, the topography of the area is largely flat.) Kajeethan, in grade 13 and studying commerce, was one of those students.
The bicycle has saved plenty of traveling time for me. I feel less tired at the end of the day. I can do my evening studies diligently.— Nirusigha, grade 13
“I used to walk 13 km [eight miles] daily, a [five-mile] round trip to school and a [three-mile] round trip to extra evening classes,” he says. “It was difficult to attend school on time. There were days when I would miss half of my first lesson.”
Forget about trying to make it home in the hour between to gobble down some lunch.
In ChildFund’s work to promote education for children and youth, we encounter many barriers to school access. Sometimes we provide running water or latrines so that girls can more easily attend; sometimes we build new school buildings; sometimes we train teachers. For Kajeethan, easier access to education meant, simply, a bicycle.
Kajeethan, of course, wasn’t alone, as ChildFund learned through early discussions with the area’s students and local authorities to identify top priorities in the community. Children’s difficulties getting to their faraway schools appeared high on the list. Their resulting poor and irregular attendance led to declines in student performance and elevated dropout rates. In Kilinochchi, still rebuilding its infrastructure after a 30-year civil war, public transportation was not an option. ChildFund’s answer: 500 bicycles.
It’s made a difference, according to S. Balakrushnan, the principal of Kajeethan’s school. “After getting the bicycles, we can see regular and timely attendance by the students,” he says. “Their performance has also improved.”
Nirusigha, also in grade 13, agrees. Her bicycle has cut her two-hour trek down to 25 minutes. “The bicycle has saved plenty of traveling time for me,” she says. “I feel less tired at the end of the day. I can do my evening studies diligently.” Now she can also visit friends to borrow study books or run other errands if need be. She has to keep a sharp eye on the bike too, lest her school-age brother snatch it for his own ends.
“I want to study hard and qualify for university,” says Nirusigha. “There I want to study medicine and become a doctor.”
Meanwhile, Kajeethan leaves for school early so he can give his mother a ride to work, and he helps out with other household responsibilities. On holidays, he gets together with friends at their homes, and they study their more difficult lessons together, helping each other. This was rare before the bicycle.
Nirusigha’s and Kajeethan’s ability to go far on their bicycles will surely help them go far in life.