For Bandha Bikes Co-Director Laurel Hamilton, growing up on the beautiful Oregon coast instilled a love and respect for the environment at an early age. She learned about the importance of environmentally friendly solutions from passionate parents who had systems to avoid creating any trash whatsoever, only bought environmentally friendly products, and regularly took their children on hikes and camping trips to commune with nature.
At the age of 13, she started to develop another interest: Learning about diverse cultures and people living in the very foreign worlds of developing countries. “It all started when a family friend moved to a village setting while volunteering with the Peace Corps in Madagascar and began sending letters about her experiences to my family,” Laurel explains. “From that point on, I always wanted to learn about foreign ways of life through travel and study.”
After high school she pursued an undergraduate degree in Biological Anthropology and in her early twenties went on her first solo trip to Mexico where she spent a semester teaching English. It was there, and on subsequent trips to Central and South America, India, and Nepal, that Laurel began to understand both the value of these different ways of life as well as the extreme injustice of unmet basic human needs all over the world.
It was when she came to George Washington University in Washington, DC, to pursue her Masters in Global Public Health that her interest in integrated environmental and community health solutions began to develop.
“To really influence lasting change, society needs to find ways to address the interrelated nature of all things,” Laurel says. “Without a healthy environment -- land, water, crops, food, air -- people cannot be healthy. And without finding sustainable solutions that can last long after we as individuals have moved on, positive change cannot take place.”
It was for some of these same reasons that Laurel started to ride a bicycle as her main form of transport while living in DC. Her concerns about the pollution caused by other forms of transport plus the value of exercise between long bouts of sitting at a desk made cycling a great multifaceted solution. As a cyclist in DC she also found time to advocate for improved infrastructure and encourage many women to take up two-wheeled adventures as well.
Soon after graduating with her MPH in 2012, Laurel heard about Hatch International’s Bandha Bikes project. By pairing locally sourced and locally built bamboo bicycles with gender and financial literacy education programs, Bandha Bikes aims to provide subsidized bicycles to the most at-need families in rural Uganda. There, because roads and public transit are limited, a bicycle can provide access to distant economic opportunities, health facilities, education centers, water, and wood collection sites. The project’s goals were a perfect fit for all of Laurel’s interests including integrated economic, health, environment, and gender impacts. The fact that the product was a bicycle, something Laurel uses on a regular basis as a tool for personal empowerment and improving the environment and her own health, was icing on the cake.
Her initial role was assisting the Project Director in all administrative and project planning duties, but she soon took on more responsibility as Co-Director and helped to develop the business plan and preliminary budgets and keep the rest of the team on task. This summer Laurel took her dedication one step farther, participating in an on-the-ground pilot in Uganda while there working in an unrelated public health position. She spent weekends preparing for the Bandha Bikes pilot bicycle training in a village outside of Jinja, Uganda, working alongside local partners to harvest and treat bamboo from a farm near beautiful Lake Victoria. She also visited hardware shops in the capital of Kampala and nearby town of Jinja to research and gather the local materials necessary for building.
After a week training two local Ugandans on the process of building the bamboo frame, Bandha Bikes is one step closer to fulfilling its mission of providing bikes to the many women walking miles a day to provide food and water for their families, children walking miles to attend school, and men unable to find work due to long distances to markets.
After returning from Uganda, Laurel moved to Los Angeles with her boyfriend and plans to continue her pursuit of integrated solutions and work toward improving the many environmental and health challenges of Los Angeles County. While she will be stepping back from her role as Co-Director, Laurel will continue as an advisor for the Bandha Bikes team. “The coming years are pivotal for the project. After all the knowledge we’ve gained in the last few years and the relationships we’ve built with partners, the tipping point to implementation of the project will soon be within reach.”
Hatch International’s Bandha Bikes projects aims to improve the well-being of impoverished Ugandans by providing rural communities with economically and environmentally sustainable bicycles. For more information on Bandha Bikes or to help support the project please click here.
This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Communications Director for Hatch International.