A bicycle race against COVID-19
As the Risk Communication co-lead, UNICEF is championing local initiatives to help fight the Coronavirus
“Information is essential before, during and after a crisis, this is where we come in. We provide important information to people allowing them to take care of themselves. Access to accurate information in South Sudan is very difficult," says Mabior Ajuang. He is project manager for the blue messenger bicycles.
The idea is as simple as it is genius in a country like South Sudan where many roads are impassible and 2/3 of the population is illiterate. Volunteers are getting on the bikes which has loudspeaker and amplifier mounted and is pedaling in neighborhoods spreading prerecorded messages in five different languages.
“We reach where no one else is reaching. The bicycles are affordable, no expensive spare parts. We can go where the cars cannot because of the roads, even narrow paths we can take with the bicycles. During the rainy season, we can easily carry the bicycles over water. We can reach further than people on foot, as it is less exhausting riding a bike than walking. The bicycles don’t require any fuel, our messengers just have to eat well, and they get plenty of exercise, no need for gym later," chuckles Mabior.
“People need to and want to know how to stay safe with the little resources they have,” says volunteer Deng Daniel Leer who has been a blue messenger for a year.
Currently, he is riding his bike with COVID-19 messages blasted from the loudspeaker mounted at the front. People are also approaching him for a chat to know more and raise their concerns.
“People are concerned about all the restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. People are living from hand to mouth and when their shops are forced to close, construction work halted or less people in need of transport how are they going to survive?” “I try to encourage them to stay strong and remain vigilant and take all the necessary precautionary measures.”
“When people ask for soap to wash their hands, I say that any soap can do and use whatever they have. They don’t need a special soap for this.”
The loudspeaker can reach up to 400 meters and cover around 200 households a day. Peak hours for the messengers are in the morning when people are outside doing their morning routines and, in the evenings, when people are back from work.
UNICEF Communication for development officer, Atem Peter, is one of the founders of the blue messenger bicycles. “We decided on the colour blue because the River Nile is very important to us and the water is blue, and water give life. The sky is also blue, and it is everywhere, so that is why blue has a special meaning and we decided to use that color.”
“Information is a human right, but it is very challenging for people in South Sudan to access information in order for them to make decisions about their lives. That is why we started the blue messenger bicycles."
Miss Jonglei 2020-2021 Anyier Malual, is volunteering for the blue messenger bicycles. “I want to try and do something about the COVID-19” “I want to support in any way I can. In my culture [Dinka] it is not appropriate for a girl to ride a bike, but I’m willing to do that as well if that is what it takes.”
“I would gather people and educate them on COVID-19.” “For me, this is not just a COVID-19 stunt, this is a longer-term commitment to information sharing, which is a challenge in my country. If it becomes possible to travel to the states again, I would go to Bor [The state capital of Jonglei] to do sensitization."
UNICEF Communication for development officer, Atem Peter, says “A girl like her has a lot of influence. When girls see her, they want to be like her and that is why they listen to her. That is a very effective way of changing people’s behavior.”
Currently, the organization has five fully operational bicycles with sound equipment. Additional ten bicycles were given from the Ministry of Health but is lacking the necessary sound equipment. The goal is to have 500 bicycles across South Sudan, 50 in every state. The organization is relying fully on volunteers and donations.
As the national co-lead on risk communication on COVID-19, UNICEF and the Ministry of Health is championing local initiatives aiming at raising awareness on the Coronavirus and helping people to stay safe. UNICEF is coordinating and implementing risk communication activities across South Sudan, raising awareness on the Coronavirus disease and ensuring people are educated on the preventive measures to keep the family safe.