Perched on top of a bicycle, she suddenly swerves off the road to avoid a speeding car. The heavy luggage on the bicycle forces her to lose balance, but with skills of a seasoned rider, she controls the bicycle with precision-as one foot firmly grips the tarmac.
Along the flat terrain of Ruhuha Sector in Bugesera District (Eastern Province), women riding bicycles is a common scene. When I visited the area, I encountered hordes of bicycle-riding women carrying anything from food, charcoal, firewood and children among other things.
It is a scene that would attract stares in other parts of the country. In fact it is a taboo for a woman to be seen riding a bicycle in most African societies, but not in Bugesera. So, how did the bicycle become the preferred surprise gift for Bugesera women?
The talk in Bugesera is that a woman can forego a handbag or a nice pair of shoes, but would not feel happy if they don’t own a personal bicycle. Even at traditional functions like giveaway ceremonies, the bicycle is a must have on the list of gifts given to the woman by her family.
20-year-old Gaudence Nirere mastered the skills of riding a bicycle at the age of 8. Today, she owns a stall at the village market which is a three hours ride away from her home. The bicycle has come in handy for the hardworking Nirere who many times gives her father a lift on the bicycle.
“It takes me three hours to get to the market on a bicycle. If I didn’t have one, it would take me longer to reach my stall in the market… and before I bought the bicycle, I had to carry the sugarcane for sale on my head,” says Nirere who operates from Ruhuha Market.
As a child, Nirere used to carry the sugarcane on her head all the way to the market where her parents worked.
While in the urban affluent communities, the bike is a tool of passing time, in Bugesera a bicycle is not for leisure. It is at the core of the livelihood of women and their empowerment. Bicycles are used for fetching water and running other errands-it is a tool of development. So a gift of a bicycle to a Bugesera woman is not for luxury but to change lives of the communities in the area.
In Ruhuha Sector, a female adult who can’t ride a bicycle is not considered woman enough. The women here believe that what a man can do, a woman can do too.
According to 18-year-old Donathe Musabyimana from Kamabuye Sector in Bugesera District, a bicycle is a must have, not only for men but women too.
“Here women do what is perceived as a man’s work. This attitude is good because women can build their families just as well as men can. It shows that girls and boys can work together, with no gender prejudices in society,” Musabyimana explains.
Musabyimana was introduced to bicycles by her brothers when she was eight years old.
“I am an orphan. I was raised by a relative…. My bicycle makes my daily chores easier. I fetch water for home use with the bicycle. Otherwise I would have to carry the water on my head. I also run errands outside the home that require me to travel a long distance. The family depends on me,” Musabyimana says gleefully.
In Bugesera, most women own bicycles. It is the key means of transport in the area and Bugesera’s flat topography has also made it easier for them to use bicycles.
33-year-old Bonifilde Nyiracumi says that a family that does not own a bicycle faces challenges, hence, the need for every child to know how to ride the bicycle-both boys and girls.
“Water scarcity is a huge problem here. We are sometimes required to make longer journeys in search for it. For instance, sometimes we go to fetch water from far areas which require the use of a bicycle,” Nyiracumi explains.
Nyiracumi, a mother of five resides in Kindama Cell. She says that because of the water problem, parents are obliged to teach their children, both girls and boys, how to ride bicycles at an early age in order to help out.
“We reject the belief that a boy is the only one who should ride a bicycle. We teach both girls and boys to ride the bicycle so that they can help their families whenever needed,” adds Nyiracumi.
Donathe Mukeshimana, 12, says that her parents bought her a bicycle to ease her movement to and from school. The young girl rides her bicycle to Ruhuha Secondary School, Known as Kwa Macumi. She gets to school in time.
“In my family, no child is late for anything because our parents gave us bicycles to ensure we are always on time,” Mukeshimana says.
The history of the ‘bicycle story’ in Bugesera
According to Ruhuha natives, the culture of women owning a bicycle dates way back in the day. When a girl was getting married, she would get a bicycle as a wedding gift; something that would see her through the journey she was about to embark on.
According to 56-year-old Melanie Mukahirwa, a Gatanga Cell resident, it was part of culture for a bride to go with a bicycle to start her new family.
Charles Ndahimana, 27, says one of the attributes the men look out for in a suitor is whether the girl is able to ride a bicycle.
“Men still consider a woman’s bicycle riding skills before marriage, though sometimes, couples work it out with the promise that the woman will learn,” Ndahimana says.
Ndahimana, who also hails from Kindama Sector, adds that most families buy bicycles and teach the girls how to ride them as early as possible in preparation for marriage. Once married, the woman then takes the bicycle to her new home.
How women on the bicycle have transformed the community
Ruhuha Sector has five cells and 35 villages. According to Fidele Sebakanura, the social affairs officer, 427 women and girls are skilled at riding a bicycle. These women and girls are key contributors to the development of their families, using their bicycle riding skills.
“Women use their bicycles to boost the wellbeing of their families. They are poverty fighters and will do whatever it takes to uplift their standards of living. In some families, a wife takes her husband to hospital; or even goes to harvest crops using a bicycle. In fact, they live interdependently which is the pillar of social development,” Sebakanura says.
He adds, “We even used to have a bicycle competition called Isiganwa ry’amagare for both women and men, funded by World Vision. The competition has since gone into oblivion, but the social affairs committee will revive it next year.”
Faustin Mugabo, the in-charge of business development and employment in Bugesera District, says women are playing a pro-active role in transforming society.
“There are women’s cooperatives like ‘Coprevanya’ where the members buy bicycles and also shares in the cooperative. Any woman who owns a bicycle in the cooperative earns Rwf500 a day,” says Mugabo.
According to District officials, the bicycle has helped women crawl from the grip of poverty, finding more and more ways to use it to boost their income in their day-to-day lives.
Is it wrong for a woman to ride a bicycle?
Definitely not; wondering whether it is wrong for women to ride a bicycle is like wondering if women should wear trousers.
I believe those are traditional beliefs, or attitudes towards women regarding what they can or can’t do.
As long as the bicycle seat is in a good position, that is to say not capable of causing any health threat, then it’s fine.
Otherwise, riding a bicycle remains a fun activity and a good tool for sports.
I don’t see anything wrong with women riding a bicycle.
It’s a good sport. In my opinion, it’s not something that should be done every day, but once in a while, it’s a good activity.
As long as you make sure that the seat is comfortable, and it is adjusted well, I don’t see any threat with a bike.
It’s important to consider safety.
Riding bicycles isn’t wrong for women, but it should be a hobby and not something they must do.
Women are soft, and as such, they shouldn’t be exposed to such hard activities like men, especially something that at some point may cause a threat to their lives.
If it’s for leisure, it isn’t wrong, saying its wrong is holding a poor attitude.
I don’t even see why people would wonder whether it is wrong for women to ride bicycles; it’s a normal activity.
Besides, women have proved that they can do different things that people thought they can’t or shouldn’t do.