This is a post I originally wrote for Bikes Not Bombs.
Last year when visiting our partner Cycloville in Nairobi, Kenya, I hosted a workshop with women cyclists in Nairobi and asked the question “what are the barriers to women cycling?” According to a 2013 study, 96.9% of cyclists in Nairobi are men. I often hear the same responses just about everywhere in the world: sexual harassment, lack of time, lack of money, domestic labor responsibilities, feeling unsafe, riding a bike is not considered ‘ladylike,’ and girls not learning to ride when they’re young. It is sadly comforting that women from most parts of the world face very similar barriers to cycling.
After this workshop, BNB partnered with Cycloville to pilot a Women’s Bike Programme (WBP), aimed to get more women on bikes. We decided to start with one of the simplest barriers to address: learning how to ride a bike. During a 3-month pilot in 2016, 110 girls and women in Mathare learned how to ride bikes through WBP. While I’m here visiting I asked Kiki, the Women’s Bike Program Coordinator, if we could arrange a bike ride with the new graduates from Learn-2-Ride. On Sunday, March 12th, 18 graduates and 4 instructors went to Karura Forest in Nairobi to go for a bike ride and to talk about the experience of learning to ride a bike.
It’s hard to describe the energy of nearly 20 twelve and thirteen year olds to go on a bike ride, especially when biking is something new and therefore a little bit scary but mostly just exciting. Add onto this energy that most of these girls don’t leave Mathare that often. As one of the largest slums in Nairobi, Mathare is both in the center of Nairobi and also a world apart. Girls might leave Mathare once a week to visit family, but most of their lives are spent within the borders of a small but populous slum. Karura Forest is only 4km away from Mathare, and visiting to go for a bike ride is an exciting excursion outside their normal routines.
After unloading bikes from the truck, we were off for a ride through the forest. It took less than 2 minutes for the first fall on a downhill, but even scrapped knees couldn’t dampen the riders enthusiasm. We rode up long hills and down long descents, as many girls learned that shifting your gears does really make a big difference. After an hour’s ride through the forest we ended with snacks of milk, bananas and donuts – the perfect combination!
We ended the day with small group discussions about cycling. To get us started I borrowed one of my favorite activities I learned in Adult Instructor Training (run by Youth Programs at BNB) where you line up teams to have people go head-to-head to be the first to touch the right tool on a tool board. I adapted the game to bike parts and we divided into 3 teams as girls raced to be the first to identify different bike parts. We started with easy things like seat, frame, and tire, and ended with rear hubs, stems, and derailleurs that sometimes even stumped instructors.
Last we sat around to talk about what it had been like to now know how to ride a bike (‘exciting,’ ‘fun,’ ‘hungry,’ ‘tiring,’) and why it’s important for women to ride bikes. As we were getting towards the end I asked if anyone had questions for me, and one girl raised her head and asked “do you lose your virginity when you ride a bike?” From the looks around the girl, it was clear that she was not the only one who was concerned about this. Kiki jumped in to emphatically say ‘No! You do not lose your virginity riding a bike. I ride my bike around town everyday, and not a day goes by that someone doesn’t tell me that I’m ‘ruining my goods.’ But I know that they are wrong and that it won’t stop me!’ Kiki’s conviction convinced the girls and they all looked relieved.
The same girl then turned to me said “I want to ride bikes like Kiki someday.”