An hour and a half away from my home in metro Atlanta, via roads with speed limits I haven’t driven in years, I stood in the rain on the side of a winding road in Winder, Georgia as the newest ghost bike in the USA was dedicated in honor of a 17-year-old girl who died recently on my 57th birthday. She was hit from behind by a motor vehicle driver while riding her bike home from the supermarket where she worked.
I was the sole person there bearing witness besides David, who runs the nonprofit organization Bike Friendly ATL, which dedicates these ghost bike memorials throughout the Southeast (this is his 85th); Rick, a man with Trump signs on his lawn who gave permission for the ghost bike memorial for a Black girl named Obienuju Faith Osuegbu to be there on his property, too, in front of which you can still see the police markings from that night; and Toya, the sister of the victim, who a quick online search shows was a volleyball star at East Carolina University. I was grateful I went, to be able to take the photo of these three people who were strangers to each other not long before. I was grateful to be alive to tell this story, as I had miraculously survived a hit-and-run while riding my bike in the place I call home just eight weeks prior.
The next door neighbor, Mike, wandered by a few times, too. There’s a memorial on his lawn as well, for a woman who was killed right there while driving with her children. Rick is 67 years old. Mike is older. They’ve been there for years. Rick told me that many bike riders used to use that road, since it’s the only way into robust downtown Winder, the governmental seat of Barrow County, just a mile or so away. “Not so much since this,” he said, motioning toward the orange circle in the road where he told me Obienuju’s body had landed.
I don’t know much about Chrissy Rawlins, the 41-year-old local woman who hit Obienuju that night, except that it says in news stories that she was driving a 2008 Ford Taurus, she hit Obienuju’s bicycle from behind, and she was ticketed for DUI and child endangerment. The local news stories say Obienuju had no lights on her bike and was in the center of the road preparing to turn.
The road has a 55-miles-per-hour speed limit (as many of the roads around here do, unless you take what’s called University Parkway, where it’s often 65-miles-per-hour and which will take you to the University of Georgia in Athens not far away). I parked my car in a still-being-built gated community nearby and rode my bike (which is always in the back of my car) on the grass on the side of this clearly dangerous-by-design road, even in the light of day, that seems to be the only way from the Ingles supermarket where Obienuju worked to her home. I don’t know where Chrissy Rawlins was coming from or where she was going. I don’t know if she would have hit Obienuju anyway without the drugs or alcohol. I don’t know if the DUI citation she received trumps everything else.
Obienuju went by the name Uju. I know this not only because Toya posted a heartbreaking tweet about her using that name but also because there is a simple cross memorial in honor of her with this name on it across the road from the ghost bike, on the road where she was trying to turn — the road off which she lived with her parents, brother, and sister. Her parents are from Nigeria, I believe, because I read through all the comments on the funeral home’s memorial page for Uju and they are apparently part of the Mbano community. I searched online and learned that Isiala Mbano is a Local Government Area of Imo State, Nigeria. Its headquarters are in the town of Umuelemai. I don’t know the reasons or circumstances under which Paul and Pauline Osuegbu came to the United States.
I drove down the road where Obienuju was trying to turn. It is a narrow, tree-covered road also with a posted speed limit of 55 miles per hour. However, there’s a yellow sign warning that there could be someone driving farm equipment — a reminder that this is, at its heart, farm country. (I had, in fact, stopped to check directions on my way here at what seemed to be a migrant farmer work camp.) I don’t know if Uju took this route home once or a hundred times before the night she was killed.
Next I went to the Ingles supermarket. Contradictions abound. Masks are required, and there’s an in-store Starbucks. There are camouflage hats and tobacco at the customer service desk, and a whole aisle of international food with more than half of it dedicated to Latino products. There is local produce — corn, peppers — wrapped in plastic. There is a gently-judgy sign over the bulk food candy that says “Sometimes Sweets” and a sign announcing senior shopping on Wednesdays from 7 AM to 8 AM. There is a photo of a girl named Joslyn and a sign saying “We’re praying for J Bird” but no mention anywhere of Uju. Perhaps there had been, back when it happened. I didn’t ask.
And that’s that. A simple story about a rising high school senior who was killed while riding her bike home the only way she could, as I used to do at that same age from the same kind of part-time job on a busy road forty years prior and 900 miles away. Or a long and winding story involving very different lives in 2020 America that unexpectedly crossed paths in the dark of night and now in the glaring light of day on the corner of Georgia Highway 211 and Pendergrass Road.
By the time I arrived back home, passing the spot where the ghost bike for me would have been erected, there were already other bike riders killed in other places in the United States. There will be ghost bikes for them as well. There will be stories of lives that crossed, and ended. I told Toya I would do what I could to help, that her sister mattered. And so although this may be just one of many stories about bike riders killed during what is currently the biggest bike boom since the 1970s, since when I rode home from working at a supermarket as well, it might make a difference. There’s always hope.