In Uganda, it was difficult to move beyond simply seeing what I wanted to see (2,000 words).
I was a woman on a bicycle in Uganda, trying to learn about why Ugandan women ride bicycles, and what prevents more from doing so. When we looked into each other’s eyes as we shared the shoulder (if there was one), it was easy to assume that the circumstances of our cycling were similar. This made it difficult to separate what I saw as good and bad about their situation from how they perceived it.
I’m far from the first to wonder if objectivity in journalism is a destination that can finally be arrived at, or instead an elusive goal always just out of reach. Either way it’s a pursuit, and I’m chasing improvements to my objectivity by telling the story of the biases I brought to Uganda, and how they affected what I made of the country’s people and culture.
MAKING MY MIND UP EARLY
Cycling away from Kenya, we were introduced to Eastern Uganda via the town of Busia, its main road clogged with bicycle taxis cruising on the flat asphalt. Their male operators wore the faded pink shirts of their organization, a blue number stencilled in paint on their chest pockets. The sudden abundance of bicycles both personal and taxi (the latter called boda bodas) was a striking difference from Kenya, where I’d noticed less of both.
My first views of Ugandan women were fleeting as they glided by, boda boda passengers going about their business in Busia. There were so many! They perched on the back rack on a vinyl cushion, knees together off to one side in pursuit of modesty, dignity, and pragmatic logistics of riding in a dress. They clutched purses or their shopping, and commonly a small child was on their laps or tied to their backs. I wondered how they gained the confidence to ride without holding onto anything for stability.
This had been my experience in Kenya—sometimes seeing women on bicycles, but only on the back. As we rode for Kampala their numbers soared, until finally we saw that they needn’t be passengers at all. An old woman with a bicycle crossed our path in the bulk of her shimmering gomesi dress, like window dressing on the move. She walked her black steel rig down the hill, and in my mind she was subversive for using it without a man to help her.
I needed a topic to investigate for an online writing course, and women’s bicycle access as it related to their empowerment interested me. I wanted to know what this looked like in rural Uganda, where the status quo has most women walking, but at the same time women on bicycles are common in some parts of the country.
I was confident I’d have insights others wouldn’t because of my gender and my cycling, but anger also drove me. In East Africa rumours circulate that cycling may take a woman’s virginity, or affect her ability to bear children.
An incident from Kenya still felt fresh. I’d been climbing a hill and a jeering man across the road had grabbed his crotch and pointed at mine in the saddle. I took this gesture to mean that he ridiculed what I was doing with my body. For the rest of the day, the hills I climbed were made easier because my legs were fuelled by fantasies of that meeting playing out differently. Of me throwing my bike down, crossing the road and getting in his face to make him feel like he’d made me.
We rode around Uganda in a big loop over the next few months. We moved slowly, and I took advantage by meeting who I could face to face, and connecting with others involved in Uganda’s cycling culture by phone or email. I asked lots of questions, but I filtered the answers through two of my assumptions that remained pretty stagnant: That men were to be suspected, and that the empowerment of a woman who used a bicycle depended on what she was doing with it.
NOTICING VERSUS ASSUMING
A habit I’m trying to break: We’ll cycle through a rural area and notice a woman in pants, where invariably she stands out from the crowd because skirts and dresses are the norm. We’ll whisper to ourselves “emancipated woman!” This assumes a lot about that woman, but that may not be the main problem. Instead, it may be more damaging to all the others who don’t wear pants. It’s a way of saying that these women are somehow less emancipated.
(Emancipation, empowerment? Such common words these days, especially when talking about women. What they mean is a whole other discussion, and in writing this post I’ve come to realize that I lack an appreciation for aspects of time and place that affect what we mean when we say them. In Uganda, when I thought these words in my head, it was shorthand for someone who seemed to have relatively more opportunities to make the choices they wanted to make.)
Similarly, when I assumed women riding bicycles were more empowered I was also saying that women walking or taking a ride on the back of a boda boda were less empowered. Assuming something significant about a stranger’s life at first glance is naive. Significantly, it also stifled my curiosity. Once I’d made up my mind, even a little, about what one’s appearance indicated I felt less conviction to treat each new person as a blank slate.
We can’t ignore the changes we register when we move place to place, and I think trying to ignore them would be a mistake. They alert us to possibilities. But in the foggy fields between our observations and interpretations, some fences have to be erected.
This bicycles-are-empowerment problem also arose while speaking with Ugandan activists working to better integrate gender considerations into transport decisions. If these female activists didn’t themselves cycle regularly, they seemed less empowered to me. Because of my assumptions, neither of us learned about the other as much as we could.
What women aimed to achieve with their cycling also mattered to me. Tina was so excited about church. Her church outreach activities were much easier now that she was permitted the use of a bicycle, and she beamed as she told me. My thoughts were retaliatory, “if you were really empowered you would do things for yourself, not for the church,” and, “I’m frustrated that your community wouldn’t give you access to a bicycle solely for your own freedom of movement.” And in the end I omitted her reasons for cycling in my story.
These snap judgements revealed more about me than about the women I sought to learn about. It was as if I expected Ugandan women of all circumstances to want to move towards a life more similar…to mine! When considering the values of people who disagree with me, I’m not where I want to be—I want to give their views equal curiosity and benefit of the doubt, but the progress has been slow.
In a typical day on the road in Uganda I encountered many men—authority figures, vehicle drivers, construction workers, service station attendants, bicycle taxis waiting for fares under the shade of a mango tree, tinny music blaring from their phones. Talking to them about women’s cycling was tricky because their views not only informed my article, but also my interpretations of personal safety and ease of travel to be reasonably expected in Uganda. With something so personal, the scales can easily tip towards suspicion and viewing men as obstacles to overcome—whether or not there’s good evidence for this.
For example, I met a man whose bicycle made it possible to work as a security guard at a location that was otherwise too far away, and therefore too costly to reach by public transport. Working-age men get little love when there’s talk about about who needs more opportunities in rural Uganda. The focus is on women and children and there’s good reasons for this, but able-bodied, working-age men are also indispensable for families to function and hopefully flourish.
Maybe this particular man was permitted to use the family bicycle because the family thought he would access the best opportunities with it. Or maybe he prevented his wife from using it because he didn’t want her to move around more freely. Or maybe the wife’s mother didn’t think cycling was appropriate for woman at all. Or maybe the wife just didn’t want to use the bicycle because she…well, need she justify it? I didn’t find out, because as soon as I found out his wife didn’t use the bicycle, I became less interested in digging deeper.
In some cases, access to a bicycle can significantly affect a woman’s life in rural Uganda for the better. It can lessen the effort and time needed to collect water and firewood. Girl children can reach school on time. Women can access different markets and with that different earning opportunities. They can have more freedom. If they enjoy the cycling itself, then this too could be counted among the benefits. This doesn’t change the importance of taking care with assumptions. If bicycles can help a woman have more choices it does not follow that a woman on a bicycle has choices. And if bicycles can help a woman have more choices it doesn’t follow that she’ll make the same ones I would, or that she should.
When we looked at each other as we briefly rode together, or managed a roadside conversation, I wanted to believe that cycling significantly changed the lives of these women, like it had mine, and so I did. Reading helped me regain some of my objectivity, and recognize the importance of quantifying what I meant by “a changed life.”
I read reports and studies and articles. They’d investigate a particular place at a particular time—for example, Busia and its boda bodas. Even in these constrained case studies, how residents transported themselves and why was complex. The visible part, the Ugandan men and women with their bicycles and their walking and their motorbikes and their buses were all supported by a dynamic net of culture, economics and politics. My angle—that women’s cycling in Uganda only became acceptable when men stood to somehow benefit—remained part of the picture. These studies helped me become aware of other important considerations, like the preferences of women as well as road conditions, safety and even topography. If a bicycle is going to meaningfully change a woman’s life, many other conditions in their community have to already be in place, or evolving simultaneously.
Without intending to, I’d learned that there’s little one can say about what a woman’s cycling means to her without time, effort and willingness on her part to explore this topic. As much as this should be obvious it took me my travels through Uganda to learn it. The complexity underlying the simple bicycle and the seemingly simple act of cycling made me feel resigned.
Now I remember this experience as a lesson in bias. Sometimes, the only way to understand an issue and one’s attitudes towards it is by wading into it, talking and writing and being very wrong, learning all while tackling bias. What I’d do differently next time is prepare for these battles beforehand. To be especially wary of my own agendas, especially when it’s a topic that’s important to me.