Despite a bad fall in the nineties, Anne still cycles because she needs to. Without her bicycle she says travelling to market in between managing her shop would be impossible. Yes, she insists, “It’s empowerment, going where you want, when you want.”
She laughs while reflecting on the limits of her travel freedom. When Anne’s sons are home from school they get priority use of her bicycle, she says.
An increasing number of women in Uganda are cycling to change their lives and communities. In Kampala, the activism of urban planner and cyclist Amanda Ngabirano has nudged forward the construction of the capital’s first bicycle lane—unprecedented in East Africa.
Uganda needs even more women who ride, but Kampala isn’t the best place to comprehend the urgency. Instead, head for the small farms and crusty savannah where communities survive through a daily struggle.
But getting a woman to ride a bicycle is not straightforward in rural Uganda. The independence it offers also changes the role of women in society and to some this feels threatening. Today, where and how women ride depends a lot on the perspectives men have about female bicycle access.
THE PROMISE OF BICYCLES
Four of every five Ugandans live outside urban centres. Here, women and girls are traditionally responsible for the daily slog of collecting firewood and jerry cans of water. They then walk with these loads—up to sixty pounds—on their heads. Cycling activist Katesi Najjiba refers to this as the ‘women’s burden,’ and she says “It is still a challenge, to collect water from wells or boreholes.”
Women can ease their burden by using bicycles, but the benefits of two wheels aren’t restricted to just doing the same tasks faster. The steel racks on the backs of a Roadmaster, Phoenix, or a Hero support all kinds of loads. Women can cycle with produce or other goods to sell in markets that they otherwise can’t reach.
“They were farming and eating everything they grew,” says Najjiba, explaining what motivated FABIO, First African Bicycle Information Organization, to try and increase bicycle access. “We thought the bicycle, with no fuel costs, would be a way [for women] to get some income from their produce.”
The average Ugandan lives on just more than two dollars a day, and women have fewer opportunities to earn income than men because they are bound to the home’s chores and children. In cash-strapped families everyone suffers, but girls lose choices in distinct ways.
Taking a ride on a passing motorbike is sometimes the only way children can reach school on time if faced with a long walk. Motorbike men aren’t altruists; the ride isn’t free. Without access to money, girls are sometimes persuaded “to do acts they wouldn’t otherwise be persuaded to do,” says Najjiba. Teenage pregnancies can result, and these girls may drop out.
Dr. Gina Porter started researching transport in Africa by accident, but stuck with it because the effects of poor transport resonated with her. “If you want to have better health, better education, better livelihoods, better quality of life, then transport is a key issue,” she argues. Despite the benefits, many Ugandan women don’t cycle.
Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, “there are more pressures on girls and women that keep them away from cycling, whether it’s sexual innuendo or household demands or community disapproval,” says Porter. She emphasizes that in each country, pressures vary region to region. It’s the same in Uganda.
The cars, motorbikes and bicycles filling the roads of Central Region reflect its relative prosperity. On them women are usually passengers. “They are not supposed to be so opened up in front of men,” says Najjiba of what traditions demand in this region, home to both the capital Kampala and the Buganda Kingdom. “You know how the bicycle process is, getting on it, it is viewed as a loss of respect to women.”
A hundred miles away, Najjiba lives in a part of Eastern Region where the Busoga Kingdom reigns. “It has different traditions…it’s more free here,” she says. There are cyclists of all kinds, like an elderly woman in traditional dress, carefully walking her bicycle down a gentle hill.
Although both genders cycle in Eastern Region, pedestrians outnumber them; cost prevents many in Eastern Region from owning bicycles. Addressing economic difficulties is the focus of Najjiba’s work with FABIO.
The expansive Northern Region is diverse. Its southern boundary, Lake Kyoga, is flush with tilapia and nearby women cycle to school or market, their families making a living from fishing and agriculture.
The lake distant, Karamojong communities in the far northeast suffer Uganda’s worst impoverishment, but their culture defines poverty as lacking cows, not bicycles. Karamojong men are herders and traditionally nomadic. Long days on foot are expected of their women and girls, who are responsible for all non-herding duties.
Rubina, a hotel cleaner in Western Region, commends northern women who in her mind “do all the work.” She attributes the lack of female cyclists in western Uganda to a type of equality. “Here, men and women both work,” she says. To her, it follows that men get priority over bicycles.
“Culture isn’t immutable, ideas change over time,” says Porter. Ideas about women’s mobility in Uganda are slowly changing. By necessity, culture is evolving to meet economic difficulties. Women need to bring in income, and that usually requires more travel.
But perceptions are also being molded through intervention, and these efforts require cooperation, says Nite Tanzarn, a Kampala-based gender consultant. If men aren’t convinced that they will benefit from mobile wives and daughters, what can happen is “even if there is a bicycle in the family, women won’t ride,” she says.
Increasing cycling in Kanungu District, western Uganda seems unlikely. Red earth roads wind over and around steep emerald lumps—it is very hilly. In the face of cultural (and topographic) barriers, Evelyne Rubalema at Ride 4 A Woman is convincing women and men that bicycle access brings income.
“Women, culturally, never used to ride bicycles here…we are trying to break that trend,” says Rubalema. The idea to train female bicycle mechanics was unusual and at first unpopular. Only eight women volunteered for the training, out of three hundred that R4W supports. Upon completion, they each received a bicycle as well.
Ride 4 A Woman rents out bicycles to tourists, and the female mechanics are paid to keep them in working order. “They come in and do simple repairs, and we try to remind them of what they learned, and then they go home with [the equivalent of] something to eat,” Rubalema explains.
These gains are modest, but with the right communication they can alter families. “They feel like more of a team, the husband sees what the woman can do,” Rubalema says. The organization offers counseling, which she says reduces frictions by promoting honesty. “You aren’t supposed to be working and hiding money from your husband,” she explains.
Ride 4 A Woman and other organizations work within the culture of their particular community to change minds. These initiatives are scattered among Uganda’s regions and cultures and part of why they exist at all is because decision makers neglect rural transport. Of all the negative perceptions surrounding cycling, perhaps the most damaging to Ugandans—men and women—is that bicycle travel moves backwards, not forwards.
When she attends expos with FABIO to promote cycling, Najjiba is met with confusion and even accusations. One of them: “You want to take us back to the nineties!”