Mud Huts and Bicycles

There are still many people living in mud huts.

To many other people not living in mud huts, this fact, heard in the year 2018, will generate feelings of pity and an urge to ‘help’ them out of that situation, in order to live a better, more civilized life, which Google tells me means: “the stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced”. And they may be right in their intentions, but I don’t believe so.

In fact, I believe that most people living in a village of mud huts, built and packed by the hands of their families and friends, from materials found in their surrounding natural environment, are happier than many people who have ‘everything’ and live in a so-called civilized world. I can’t be sure, since I haven’t lived in a mud hut without running water or electricity, but I have got to know some of these people living in a rural Zambian village, and the sincere contentment they exude is without doubt more pure and positive than the average attitude of people like myself, who have ‘everything’.

I’m not suggesting we should all live in mud huts, but I am suggesting that living in one is not necessarily a sad existence, and more likely a pure, good, simple life.

As the contemporary capitalist machine churns forward, consuming everything in its path to fuel its big inefficient engines, I wonder if it can be slowed a little? Or stopped? Or if reverse gear exists in its gearbox? Many have pondered this before me, and I may reach the same conclusion as those who’ve tried before, to understand why this machine moves so powerfully forward, when in fact the quality of life it creates is going backward. The conclusion that the machine’s momentum overpowers any counter-force which acts against it from any direction, and in fact is able to use some of that ‘negative’ energy to fuel itself, defying scientific logic.

Signs of a declining quality of life stare us in the face, and yet we still don’t see the wood for the trees. Climate change is probably the most significant one, being the culmination of environmental blunders all over the world. Right here in Cape Town, we’re experiencing a water crisis due to reasons including, but not limited to, drought. We travel and witness first hand or see in documentaries how pristine forests are being decimated, on all continents, to grow fuel for the consumerist way of our civilized society. Similarly, we’re aware of animal species declining or disappearing, both due to their natural habitat destruction or unsustainable hunting. It’s also clear that human health is declining, despite average life spans increasing, serious illness and disease is so common now it’s almost normal, and instead of trying to identify the causes and prevention, we spend more money on finding cures, because that’s how the machine works, it needs to create stuff to progress. We’re living longer, but in what condition?

Our social lives are supplemented so heavily by (ironically named) social-media, with our minds in a constant state of overstimulation, we don’t have time, energy or capacity to socialize normally. How quickly it became status quo or socially accepted, to share a meal with family or friends, spending more time looking at a smartphone than enjoying their company… a mere 5 years or so! Mobile device addiction is so severe and destructively powerful that it’s also changing our bodies, curving us forward and down, closer in posture to Australopithecus than Homo Sapiens. Wait, is this the first indicator of reversion to the good simple life? I’m afraid not, well not yet. Unfortunately, things first need to get worse for the drivers of the machine, before lower gears are engaged.

These issues are noticed by people around the world, they’re discussed, analysed and even used ridicule our own by showing how stupidly self-destructive we are as a race dependent on a single planet. Yet we still cannot reach a critical mass powerful enough for positive change, to slow the machine enough to engage reverse gear. 

Two Zambian charcoal transporters on the new road into Livingstone. The rear rider carries 3 bags and the other 4. The charcoal bags weigh about 25kg each

Photo: Two Zambian charcoal transporters on the new road into Livingstone. The rear rider carries 3 bags and the other 4. The charcoal bags weigh about 25kg each

So how do bicycles fit into this story? Well mostly because I’m addicted to bicycles, a material thing, which I consume as only a true capitalist consumer can, wanting the latest and greatest product available. The bicycle I realised is great example and case study to try make sense of this modern life conundrum. The bicycle, in essence, is a very simple machine, human-powered and highly efficient for transportation of man and cargo. And yet today they can sell for more money than some people earn in a decade, yes, those poor people, who live in mud huts. Yet they too have bicycles, albeit very different ones to the high-tech versions that I enjoy, and also use them in very different ways.

Recently while riding my modern bicycles through a mud hut village in the Zambian bush, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere of the simple happy life of the rural community, I drew the attention of not just the kids but everyone who saw me on my fancy bike. Then I decided, because I can and it generally makes people smile, to lift the front wheel and ride on my back wheel. The villagers were so fascinated by this they stopped and watched in disbelief of what this bicycle was capable of, not just lifting the front wheel, but it was now seen as a tool with which to have fun on, very different to the bicycle as a means of transport in their world. They could never have imagined riding a bike on one wheel, because their bikes are old-tech and made to be stable under load when moving in a straight line. 

Bicycles in Zambia and used mainly to carry charcoal from the forests where the wood is burned, into the nearest towns. These riders are extremely strong, pedaling heavy steel bikes loaded with up to 100kg for many kilometers, sometimes on terrible roads, when the bike is often used as a pushcart more than a pedal cycle. Recently, especially with the introduction of the new-but-old-tech World Bicycle Relief Fund ‘Buffalo’ bike (a sturdier version of the old Indian postman-style single speed bikes), Zambians are using bicycles to get to school, work or hospital in less time. This seems to be improving the lives of rural village people. They can now become better educated, earn more money and live longer. But do they really need that? Or is it not the beginning of another path which leads these people, these simple, smiling, happy people, closer to the road on which the people which have ‘everything’ are driving on, in their fancy cars (mostly sitting in traffic)?

I don’t think there is a correct answer, or if an answer will change the system. I feel the influence of the machine is so far reaching that even the isolated Amazonian tribes will be sucked in soon, probably via WiFi of an overhead aircraft. Anyway, time waits for no-one and the machine advances, producing amazing bicycles, wonderfully smartphones which combine many now redundant devices into one, simplifying our lives in so many ways, making us more mobile and with less daily hassles, so that we can have more time, more fun and be happier. It’s a great marketing story, and it sells.

About the author: 

Harry Orr quit a well-paying job and is taking a year off to travel around the world with either a bicycle, or climbing gear, or both. Climbing and riding up mountains along the way. 

Follow Harry on Instagram.