Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pedaling for the Women of Rwanda

“Race what you bring” is the inclusively spirited motto for the monthly races run by the Rwandan Cycling Federation. In July, Angelique Mukandekezi showed up at the race on one of the Chinese single speed bikes that are prolific around Rwanda and East Africa. Just to give you perspective, my bike, which is a pretty good bike, weighs, as I recall, since I tend not to fully absorb bike facts, in the neighbourhood of 17 pounds. Angelique’s bike weighed in at around 40 pounds. The race, at Nyamata, drew 84 women participants (in case anyone thinks the women of Rwanda don’t want to cycle, that number should make them think again) and Angelique won the women’s field. True, the field was not exactly packed with top racers, but Angelique’s win drew interest from Jock Boyer at Team Rwanda, who had been paying some attention to the women’s field, wondering if he might find the right woman to add to their ever-strengthening team of men (who were profiled in a New Yorker article by Philip Gourevitch).

Jock brought Angelique in for a test, which basically means that she came to his house in Ruhengeri, where the team is based and trains and got on the Velotron, which essentially calculates the energy wattage output of the person riding. Angelique had the highest watts/kg ratio of any woman tested in Rwanda. And so, in September this year, Angelique became the first woman on the team. In October, Angelique’s first full month of training, the team paid her 30,000 Rwandan francs (approximately $50 USD) to stay out of the field (Angelique normally earns her living as a field worker) and cycle train exclusively. For perspective—the average annual income in Rwanda is $400 USD. Not quite junior bond trader pay, but Angelique is making pretty good money for a 22-year-old woman in Rwanda.

Staying out of the field means that every Monday, Angelique rides about 100 miles from Bougasera, where she lives with her parents, to Ruhengeri. She trains Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and then makes the long ride home on Friday.

Inspired by Angelique, 24-year-old Janette Uwimana, who had been hanging around the team on and off, more on around the Tour de Kigali the last couple of years (cycling groupies aren’t only for Lance), upped her effort and has joined, too.

Being a strong woman in Rwanda is not easy. The tiny African country often feels more colonial than African, Kimberly told me. An already very conservative ethos is overlaid with a strong Catholicism. There’s not a lot of music. The women still wear the traditional dress for the most part and are timid and uneducated (as are a majority of the men, too—the uneducated part, not the timid bit). Women work the fields and have babies, while the men, in large part, hang out and drink banana beer, conserving their energy for a round of spousal abuse when their wives finish working.

When Angelique started at the team’s training camp, she wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. Well that’s changing. A few weeks on the bike, getting stronger every day, and Angelique is starting to have fun with the guys, to be part of the team.

A couple of weeks into her training, Angelique encountered her first overt harassment on the bike. About two and a half hours into a rainy training ride, shortly after nailing a tough, technical downhill, Angelique got a flat as they rode into a village. Janette and Kimberly got to work on changing Angelique’s tire (something she will learn in the weeks to come). By the time they had finished the job, there were about 50 people hanging around, mostly young men—not unusual when Kimberly stops, since a white woman, especially on a bike, is quite a strange creature to behold. When the three women hopped on their bikes to head off, a man grabbed Angelique’s back wheel as she was clipping in. Angelique, still fighting her timidity, didn’t know how to react. Fortunately, Kimberly had no such reservations. She screamed at the man to back off (using expletives appropriate to the situation). He backed off.

When Angelique caught up to Kimberly she yelled, in her newly acquired English, “Thank you—Kim!” Kimberly had never heard Angelique so much as raise her voice. Later, Kimberly explained to Angelique through the interpreter that Angelique can and should say no anytime anyone touches her bike, as forcefully as she needs. Kimberly might have added, anytime anyone touches her body, but one piece of progress at a time. And perhaps, for Angelique, learning to protect her bike is the best initial step to learning how to protect her body.

In her first week with the team, Kimberly had “the” conversation with Angelique. No getting married and having babies, if she wants to ride with the team. Not never, but not now. Because in Rwanda, the fact that Angelique has made it this long without getting married, and is still childless at 22, is something unusual already. She has already withstood the typical societal claims on her body for longer than many other women.

Janette, too, is coming out of her shell, getting stronger. Against the prevalent cultural grain, or men preferring women with a nice bit of extra, Janette is losing the bit of weight she needs to shed to be stronger on the bike, improving her diet, cutting out the soda and other junk food, claiming personal control over her body, shaping it to her ends, not to what society (aka men) want.

The next task for Angelique and Janette is to develop their competitive instinct. That was supposed to happen in the Rwandan National Championships on October 30th, where Kimberly was hoping that Angelique and Janette could place first and second, by working together, something they were learning in the last days before the race. Unlike the men, Angelique and Janette don’t understand yet how to be competitors on the bike and friends off the bike. In workouts, whichever of the two is lagging will cycle hard to catch up, but just that. Once they are riding together again, neither tries intentionally to outstrip or push the other. To compete is not in the Rwandan women’s upbringing, something Kimberly hopes to change.

Making that change is going to be hard. Women’s cycling in Rwanda is not exactly top of mind, even for the Rwandan Cycling Federation, which canceled the women’s race at the National Championships at the very last minute. Kimberly publicly complained, “I've been training these girls for the past four weeks, spent over $600 on their training, rode hundreds of miles and they are ready and wanting to race and that's it?” She went on to tell me, “I said, I was disappointed in their decision and said it wasn't right to do that to the girls and if they were going to cancel the race that it should have been done weeks ago.”

Undeterred, Kimberly says, “This is simply a delay.” She and Jock already have plans to put on their own women’s race in the New Year, once they’ve gotten through this hectic period of the African Continental Championships (November 8-11) and then the Tour of Rwanda (November 20-26).

In the meantime, training continues. Progress, being what it is, is never a straight line. One week, about five weeks into Angelique’s training, she seemed to forget how to clip in and out of her pedals, cycling for miles without clipping in, and then, when she finally did, tipping over still clipped in, damaging her bike. I won’t even mention the tire changing struggles. But Kimberly will not give up on Angelique, on Janette, on the future of women cycling in Rwanda, which she sees as inextricably intertwined with the future of women in Rwanda.

Because Team Rwanda, as you’ve guessed by now, is about more than cycling. For the men, “we are trying to train them to be not just good cyclists, but also good men,” Kimberly says. In addition to the practice of discipline, hard work and adherence to a training schedule, learning to read and write English, for example, is part of the training camp curriculum, an invaluable skill for any advancement in Rwanda or elsewhere in Africa (or outside Africa). Now that there are women on the team, there’s an added opportunity for the men to learn to respect their strong women counterparts.

Kimberly’s goal is to develop a field of women cyclists over the next twelve months, so that next year at least one Rwandan woman, if not more, will be competing at the African Continental Cycling Championship, a cycling event notoriously short on women participants.

What’s good for the gander is in spades for the goose. A survey of landscape of studies on the topic done by the Christian Science Monitor shows emphatically that empowering girls and women is one of the surest routes to economic and social development in a country. The fact that women may occupy political positions in government is not necessarily an indication of women’s general condition—certainly not in Rwanda. Women’s value and advancement needs to develop from the bottom up. How we empower women may be through education, it may be by providing them with micro-loans, and it might just be by putting women on a bike and teaching them how to ride strong and fast for all to see and respect.

As Kimberly says, “when we ride through a village, the woman on the side of the road clap and cheer for Angelique and Janette. I like to think that every time they see them on their bikes, they see a possible future that’s different. Maybe it sounds pie-in-the-sky, but I think that we can change the society for women, one bike at a time.”

You can help that change happen. Add your voice to Kimberly’s work. Send Team Rwanda (choose Kimberly as the contact person) this note: “I support women’s cycling in Africa and hope that Team Rwanda will develop a serious women’s team!”