December 13, 2013 6:46 pm

Why healthcare workers in Africa are being turned into bikers

The woman helping to improve lives in Africa thanks to health workers – and the art of motorcycle maintenance
Andrea Coleman at her home in Northamptonshire, UK©Victoria Birkinshaw

Andrea Coleman at her home in Northamptonshire, UK

I like dealing with motorcycle racers – they tend to live life very much on the starting line,” says Andrea Coleman, as she reflects on her life story in the sitting room of her home in rural England. It would seem that Coleman – here perched animatedly on the edge of her sofa – also approaches life from the starting line. Motorcycles have certainly played a significant role in her life.

As winner of this year’s Women of the Year Barclays award, Coleman has been recognised for her use of an innovative business model to improve access to healthcare in Africa. Her foundation, Riders for Health, arranges for African health ministries to help pay for health workers to be trained to ride motorcycles and have their vehicles maintained routinely.

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IN At Home

Coleman grew up in a family of motorcyclists – her father and uncle raced bikes before the second world war – and her love affair with the machine began at an early age, and in the early 1970s she went on to become a racer herself. “It’s been a huge influence on me,” she says. “I saved up before my 16th birthday for my first motorcycle. The day I was 16 I put my L-plates on, took three months and then passed my test. I just wanted to be out riding motorcycles.” A sepia picture of her family’s motorcycle shop, Williams and Bullus, is on display along a corridor that leads to the library.

Coleman disliked school intensely – “I hated the structure, hated my fellow pupils and teachers . . . I thought it was completely unnecessary” – and, aged 16, she decided to leave. “I was very interested in earning money, though. I used to do window cleaning and I worked for a circus for a while,” she adds. “In fact, I looked after the elephants. I learnt to teach them how to get down on one knee so I could climb up and scrub them.”

Rear of the house©Victoria Birkinshaw

Rear of the house

In spite of her fierce independent streak, Coleman has invested a lot of energy in her own home in Norton, Northamptonshire. “I love interiors and I’m really interested in design,” she says. West African prints line the walls above a beige sofa in the living room, while fairy lights decorate a wooden dresser in the kitchen. A large wooden table stands in the middle of the kitchen in front of an Aga.

At the time Coleman started racing she met her husband, Tom Herron, who went on to become a Grand Prix motorcycle racer. In 1971, the couple moved to County Down in Northern Ireland, where once again Coleman showed her resourcefulness. “I went to the airport one day and I said to the freight companies, ‘I’ve got a van. I can do deliveries for you’. Within two weeks I was running around Northern Ireland and earning really good money,” she says.

All Saints’ church in Norton©Victoria Birkinshaw

All Saints’ church in Norton

The work was not without its dangers. On one occasion Coleman was ambushed and attacked while riding through a troubled area of Belfast but she remained undeterred. “I loved living there,” she says. “Partly because I wasn’t prejudiced and partly because I was naive I didn’t take any notice of the situation.”

Coleman followed her husband to Europe on the motorcycle racing circuit. However, tragedy struck in 1979: soon after Coleman gave birth to their twins, Kim and Zoe, Herron died in a racing accident in Northern Ireland. “It was then that I became very interested in motorcycle safety and how you turn something that you really like and value into something that isn’t destructive,” she says. This interest eventually led her to meet her second husband, Barry, then a journalist for the Guardian who covered motorcycle racing.

Television lounge©Victoria Birkinshaw

Television lounge

Having raised money for Save the Children at racing circuits, she and Barry ended up working for the charity. The couple were put in touch with east Africa specialist Andrew Timpson (“who rode a Ducati and always wore white leathers”) who took Barry and Randy Mamola, another GP motorcycle racer, to Somalia to learn how motorbikes could be used in a development context. In 1990, Coleman and her husband co-founded Riders for Health. And they have dedicated their lives to the project ever since.

“Barry’s job was to make sure systems were created to be able to reach rural communities,” says Coleman. “How do you run and train teams? How do you create a system where vehicles can be maintained where they are needed, rather than have a truck do 4,000km to get back to the main city?” Using imported Japanese motorcycles, they began equipping communities across Africa to deliver better access to healthcare.

Second kitchen – with an electric oven©Victoria Birkinshaw

Second kitchen – with an electric oven

Coleman’s first trip to Africa (to Lesotho) made a powerful impression on her. “The thing that made me most determined to do what we do was seeing health workers – decent honest people, mainly women, who were needed 20 miles away,” she says. “They were expected to walk and leave their families. What can you carry? What can you do when you get there? You’re exhausted. Or you go on a bus which breaks down or doesn’t get there at all . . . There are vehicles that have been around 100 years. All you have to do is look after them.”

Kitchen area and window looking out on to fields©Victoria Birkinshaw

Kitchen area and window looking out on to fields

The systems that Riders for Health has created, in partnership with other NGOs in seven countries across Africa, help bring predictability into the healthcare system. “That way it also shows the holes,” Coleman says. Medical test results can be couriered at specific times rather than being left on the shelf; a midwife can be present at a health centre at times when women are likely to arrive; and health workers can carry the equipment they need for patient visits. On top of that, technicians deliver fuel and spare parts for the motorcycles to health workers at regular times each month.

Riders for Health has also had a significant social impact. Both men and women are trained in motorcycle maintenance and in how to ride them. “For women, their status does change in their family; they are more respected in the community,” says Coleman. You often find people trained to be motorcyclists are trained [medically] to a higher standard because they can often do more things when they get there.”

Coleman explains how the finances work. “We charge ministries of health money for running their vehicles for them – that money goes back into running the social enterprise,” she says. “We earn 46 per cent of our income from ministries of health, but we still need support for 54 per cent of our income.”

The quintessentially English setting in which she and her husband live is in stark contrast to their work across remote parts of Africa. But throughout the house’s interior, there are references to the continent that has captured Coleman’s heart. Zimbabwean Shona sculptures, for example, are displayed in the window looking on to the beautifully tended garden.

Coleman’s passion for her work is clear. I ask her how far she thinks it has helped that she is a woman.

“I’m a woman who turns up where nobody expects me to be. It takes people by surprise – it is an advantage – no question about it.”

 . . . 

Aga©Victoria Birkinshaw

Favourite thing

“I was thinking about this and you know my favourite thing is the Aga,” laughs Coleman. “How middle class is that? In stressful situations people think of sitting on the beach, but I actually think about being by the Aga. My children, who are now all grown up – the two girls, Kim and Zoe, live in Clapton, and the other, Oliver, in Brooklyn – always get tea towels when they come home and sit on the Aga.”

A separate kitchen has been built next to where the Aga is situated, just in case any future potential housebuyer prefers an electric oven.

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Serena Tarling is a commissioning editor for House & Home

riders.org

womenoftheyear.co.uk

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