Jendyose kicked the small grey rock with her scuffed, scorched sandal and watched as a small mushroom of dried mud rose under its weight. Squinting in the early morning sun, she scoured the ground for another source of entertainment to divert her from the monotony of her daily passage. She failed to find anything to amuse her and so, sighing, picked up pace through the parched Ugandan Karamoja plains, the surrounding savannah with its endless thorned plants and spiny acacia trees giving the small-framed 10-year-old little reprieve.
Jendyose knew that it would be several hours more before she reached her daily destination, the nearest waterhole that would offer her a scant bucketful with which to return. For the hundredth time she wished she was sturdier and stronger so she could carry more, faster, for although young, Jendyose understood she should be in school learning to read and write. But with the long daily journey for water and the four-hour 20km walk to the nearest school, she also recognised that her choice lay between water for survival and the luxury of an education.
In a land far removed from the cattle-herding nomads and drought-scarred sub region, Fay Samerai cycled around Dubai’s Green Community where laughter filled the air of the lush, green surroundings and intermittent fountains produced the soft sound of cascading water.
At 10 years old, the same age as Jendyose, Fay had finished school for the day and, having hastily dropped her bag at home, was now enjoying a ride on her brand new yellow bike. Stopping to casually ‘park’ her bicycle next to her friends’ on the floor, she ran with the group to the park to play. But what is simply a toy to those born into fortune is an endless possibility for those born into poverty.
It is this inequality that would later inspire the daughter of Dubai-based businessman Dr Ahmed Samerai to donate that yellow bike to a little girl with whom she shared nothing but age. While Fay had access to quality education and healthcare, a comfortable loving home, running water and a well-stocked fridge, Jendyose, whose father passed away leaving her two brothers as breadwinners, lived below the poverty line in a wooden hut.
Prompted by the endeavours of her father’s foundation and learning of the lives of those less fortunate than herself, the young but compassionate Fay would give her bike as a gift to Jendyose and in so doing, transform the lives of this rural family of seven.
The disparity between the haves and have nots and the ease with which people can change lives, is the underlying message of entrepreneur and philanthropist, Dr Samerai’s first foray into film, The Story of One Yellow Bike.
This short docu-drama highlights the work of aid organisation Bicycles for Humanity (B4H) and in so doing encourages the privileged youth of today to relinquish something small for the greater good.
At 15 minutes long, the message is simple; in privileged parts of the world a bicycle for children of Fay’s age is a toy, a source of amusement, a method of transport to roam freely between neighbourhoods. In parts of the world like Uganda however, a bicycle can make the difference between life and death. With the capacity to cut journey lengths by half, a bicycle can allow a child like Jendyose to collect water and attend school, it can allow an HIV-positive patient to travel the 40km distance to the nearest health centre, and it can allow rural farmers to journey to markets where they can sell goods at fair prices. Ultimately, a bike can transform lives.
“Many people don’t understand the real value of a bike,” Dr Samerai says. “Personally, I didn’t either, until I got involved in this project by supporting Bicycles for Humanity. Now I know bicycles help children go to school, they help doctors make more frequent visits to patients in remote villages, and people can send their products to a larger market, thereby gaining better rewards.”
The Iraqi-born father of four’s documentary highlights this difference by documenting the journey of one little girl’s yellow bicycle from the glitzy high-rises of Dubai to the conical natural fibre huts of Uganda. From ship, to train, to truck, the bicycle makes its way from Jebel Ali, to the seaport of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, to the Ugandan capital Kampala, and then via the locally labelled Road of Death to the remote plains of Karamoja and its local town Abim.
A reference to the Road of Death in this short film is not unintentional, for the name harks back to a time in recent history that still haunts Uganda economically and emotionally; a country that today still battles the ghosts of civil wars, dictatorships and genocide. For despite several years of peace, Uganda remains synonymous with the reigns of Idi Amin and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), periods of terror that although quelled in 2006, have left deep-rooted scars.
Despite its short time frame, The Story of One Yellow Bike does not shy away from Uganda’s tragic past. In fact the nation’s history is the basis for its current need and in a minimal viewing period, privileged audiences will be left with a long-lasting reminder of the tragedies that unfolded in a country some mere four hours’ flight away.
“To be honest, many of us have become spoiled living in Dubai,” Dr Samerai says. “It’s a great city, everything is of the highest standard, it’s clean, comfortable and safe but sometimes people who live here need reminders of how other parts of the world live. I believe that Uganda – and many other countries – needs attention, help and support. People like us may be unable to change politics or conflicts, but if we try to help the people, then we might help to reduce the impact of conflict.”
Startling images are included in this film of the 60,000 or so children who were abducted by the LRA to serve as child soldiers or as flesh trade slaves over a period spanning 20 years. It highlights that today many Ugandans still suffer the trauma from the era of brutal oppression and although in villages across the country people are regaining trust in one another and settling back into communal living, many of the areas lie remote and unassisted.
In these isolated areas people have little access to water, sanitation, health care or education and the need for mobility is clear. As Bicycles for Humanity founder Pat Montani says, “Mobility is the first step to a better life for all in the developing world. Imagine your life in Dubai without any cars, trucks or buses. If everyone walked, nothing would get done. The area we send bikes to [Abim] has nothing – no roads, no electricity, no economy, it really is the end of the earth and everyone walks, they simply need help.”
It was while travelling alongside actor and comedian Ben Stiller, visiting the Hollywood star’s foundation to build schools in Haiti, a country still suffering the dire consequences of a 2009 earthquake, that Dr Samerai learnt of Bicycles for Humanity, an organisation that provides rural communities around the world with the gift of mobility.
With a desire to help populations close to the Mena region, he chose to further investigate Ben’s recommendation.
“I knew I wanted to help, but Haiti was so far away,” he says. “I wanted somewhere nearer to Dubai so Ben suggested the B4H organisation in Uganda that he works with. He introduced me to the founders and things rolled out from there.
“There are so many projects that need assistance in Africa but this came on Ben’s recommendation and I know and respect the work he carries out in Haiti building schools and rebuilding lives.”
Meeting with the charity’s director in Uganda, Dr Samerai was moved by the plight of the country’s poor.
“I was sad seeing the pictures of children carrying guns, killing people and living in the jungle,” he says during the movie.
“I feel like children should be in school learning, playing games like all other children the world over, they shouldn’t be treated differently.”
With four children of his own, one of whom has just spent nine weeks building schools in Eritrea, Dr Samerai felt compelled to help. Sitting his youngest daughter down, he explained to Fay the difference between the life she had the good fortune to be leading and that of her counterparts in Uganda and explained that he would be helping some of the children by sending them bicycles.
Fay immediately volunteered to donate her own beloved yellow bike, a move Dr Samerai felt was worthy of highlighting. Deciding to document the venture in a short movie rather than just posting a small section on his website, he set about creating a visually compelling and educational tool, aimed at helping people of all ages understand the importance of mobility in some of the world’s most remote locations.
“Documenting her actions and the difference a bike makes helps in many ways,” he says. “Hopefully it will show people that something as little as an old used bike can change a person’s life in Africa. You don’t need to be rich to give to others.”
As the founder of the Samerai Foundation, the philanthropic arm of his Sahara Group, considered one of the most active PR firms in the Middle East, Dr Samerai is no newcomer to charitable work.
Since 2004 and the launch of his foundation, the 43-year-old has been actively engaged with programmes ranging from Green Peace initiatives to providing school fees for underprivileged children in the Middle East. However, as a doctor of economics, he certainly had up until that point no experience in directing or producing. “This was my first venture when it came to documenting,” he says. “I studied physics at university. I knew nothing about film-making but I knew the message would be stronger if it was visual. If I told people I had sent over 1,000 bikes to Africa I would get hardly any response, when you suddenly put it on screen and really show people what it takes and what the people are going through, then you can have impact.”
Since relaying the journey of Fay’s yellow bike, Dr Samerai’s foundation has not only financed the movie with no proceeds (charitable or otherwise) to be gained from the film, but also donated 1,500 bikes to Ugandan communities in support of B4H. Although launched in Dubai’s Reel Cinemas on February 10, The Story of One Yellow Bike is now available free to view on YouTube.
“I don’t look to make money from my movies,” he says. “Putting them on YouTube will spread the message more widely, more people will watch it. Although I hope they focus on the overall message and not the details, we are not an action or drama movie.
“We just wanted to get the message into the minds of people for as long as possible.”
He also intends to take the film into schools as a teaching tool nationally and regionally with a view to engaging children and teaching them about the big difference a little mobility can make.
“As adults, we have done a good job of creating wars and conflicts in one way or another,” he says. “Look at Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya… It is a long list which sadly continues to grow. I believe kids have cleaner hearts and emotions, when they give something; they give it from their hearts.
“If we as adults could behave like children, we would be living in a safer world. Let us give them the chance to give, and we will see much better results.”
With the success of One Yellow Bike, Dr Samerai intends to keep on creating mini movies that make a difference to the Jendyoses of this world. A girl who, given the gift of a yellow bicycle, is able to fulfil her dreams of going to school and who hopes of one day visiting Dubai.
“I am happy with this bicycle, I would like to thank everyone who sent me this bicycle and other bikes to my friends.”
She adds with a smile, “I haven’t been to a main city until now, but… [if] you want to invite me to your country, if my mother lets me go then I will come.”
A sign of the little girl’s age and her right, like all children across the world, to have not only an education but the chance to simply be a child.