Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

18 November 2014

This Young Man Delivers

Three decades have passed since I was a bike messenger in Manhattan.   As far as I know, none of the other messengers I knew from those days is still "in the business" in any capacity, not even as a dispatcher or owner of a courier company.

Still, I feel a certain kinship with anyone who makes deliveries on a bicycle (though not on e-bikes or motor scooters!).  I was a messenger, in part, because at that time in my life, I couldn't have worked in an office or any other place with four walls, and I couldn't deal with any other human being--with one or two exceptions--for more than a few minutes at a time.  

Also, even though I was quickly forgotten when I stopped making deliveries--after all, it wasn't hard to replace me--I still sometimes feel as if no work I've done since those days was as vital.  Or, at least, the absence of anything I've done since then wouldn't be noticed as much as my failure to deliver the blueprints, letters, packages and lunches(!) I brought to offices, businesses and, on occasion, people's homes.

Even so, I never did anything as important as Sizwe Nzima has been doing for the past four years.

He was waiting--and waiting--on line for his grandparents' HIV medication.  They couldn't get to the Cape Town, South Africa clinic where the medicine was dispensed, so Sizwe--who was still a high school student--made frequent trips there.  He realized that others who were waiting with him on line had similar stories, or were themselves people who arrived only after great difficulty.  They usually came, as Nzima did, from the city's low-income townships, far from the center. 

Poverty and unemployment are rampant in those areas.  Most of the residents are black.  Nzima found out that while many companies delivered medications to people's homes, none went to the impoverished communities like the one in which his grandparents lived.  The companies told him they weren't acting out of prejudice:  They simply couldn't find the homes--wooden and metal shacks--because they don't show up on Google or other search engines.

Sizwe Nzima, right, and one of his six employees deliver medicines to patients in a Cape Town neighborhood.
Sizwe Nizma (r) and one of his employees deliver medicines in a Cape Town neighborhood.

Only someone with local knowledge could navigate the area.  Nzima has that.  While sitting on a hard wooden bench at the clinic, he realized he could use that knowledge to deliver HIV medicine to those houses the companies' maps and electronic devices couldn't find.

After a while, he branched out and started bringing people medications for other chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and epilepsy.  From having two customers--his grandparents--four years ago, he and his staff of six riders (some of whom work full-time) now serve 930 clients.

Now his business may branch out again:  an international shipping company wants to start delivery to Cape Town's urban townships. They, like the companies he contacted four years ago, can't find the houses.  Therefore, they need someone with local knowledge, and have contacted him.  They want him and his crew to do the work.

Not bad for a 23-year-old, eh?

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