I have been living in Rwanda since April 21, 2009, five years and hundreds of miles on the winding roads of this country, which is known as “Land of a Thousand Hills”. My legs and lungs have felt at least half of those thousand hills.
Riding in a predominately conservative, traditional Christian culture as a white woman, an older white woman, has been and still is an unfamiliarity to the locals who blanket the roads, walking back and forth to town, to market, to the fields in endless momentum from sun up to sun down. After five years in the same town, people still stare.
Some days riding, my previous source of peace and solitude, my personal space to regroup is peppered with young children in tatters yelling “Muzungu” (whiteperson) from the side of the road. Then comes the “Muzungu Amafaranga” (white person money). It is generally from the very young to the young adults who taunt me for a handout. As my irritation rises I see the women. Older women, women my age 40+, okay….closer to 50. As I approach them I see the telltale signs of shock and wonder.
The smiles, the stares, not in a desire for anything but just in awe to see an “older” woman in spandex pedaling up the hill. They are often carrying something, everything they need to sustain life, charcoal, grass, firewood, potatoes, and bananas, all on their heads. Or they are holding hands talking amongst themselves, often with a Mukeciro (respectful term meaning old lady) hanging on their arms.
Their smiles are radiant across their weather worn and tragic past filled faces. They point, and as they do, I smile and wave, “Good morning, ladies!” They laugh. I bust out my very minimal Kinyarwanda, “Muraho, amakuru!” (Hello, how are you?). They laugh and wave. They watch and often clap as I pass.
These are the people I ride for. The Mukeciros, the women who have seen more than any person should witness in several lifetimes. These are women who have raised many babies, and have lost many babies; they may have fled the genocide or witnessed their husbands arrested for genocide. They toil day in and day out in the fields barely scratching out an existence. These women for a split second on a sunny morning in Rwanda have a good laugh and talk about the Mukeciro Muzungu. I am everything they never had the chance to be.
I ride for the Mukeciros. I ride to give their daughters a chance at a better life, a life their mothers could never have. Their daughters can be educated in a country free from strife. I am living proof their daughters can do and be anything they want to be.
If a woman in Africa has a bike she has a future. She is less likely to marry before the age of 18, less likely to have children before 18 and more likely to stay in school.
Jean d’Arc is one of these girls. Yes, her name is translated, Joan of Arc and she is as fierce on the bike as the legendary warrior. Jean d’Arc is 17, tall, boyish in appearance and the fastest girl on a bike in Rwanda. She wins every local race and this past December she was the first woman to compete from Rwanda at the Africa Continental Championships taking a very respectable in the road race. Last week I saw her in Rwamagana at the Qhubeka bike distribution for school children through Adrien Niyonshuti’s Cycling Academy. I spotted her from a distance, standing tall amid the crowd. As I came towards her she smiled and yelled “Coach!” and gave me a hug. In all honesty I have done very little coaching with her other than telling her to ride with and beat the boys. But I am a woman who rides a bike, with the boys, and that is simply enough for her.
In a country like Rwanda where very few woman ride, who have never been given the opportunity to own a bike, to learn to ride, we, the collective “we” of women throughout the world must ride for them. We must empower them and give them a vision of what they can be.
Because we ride, they can ride.
Support the women throughout the world and especially in places like Rwanda, Eritrea and Ethiopia with your pledge and commitment to get women on bicycles.
It will change a life.
By Kimberly Coats – Rwanda - Kimberly is one the driving forces behind Team Rwanda and Team Africa Rising, currently in the process of promoting and enhancing the women’s cycling in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. Read more about it here.