Here in Ghana, a road is never really a road. Most of the time, a road is a series of cement islands surrounded by rutted gravel and potholes leading from where people live to wherever they want to go. Transport is expensive, so many people walk. On foot, commutes can be an hour or more. On a bike, they take less than half that time. At Village Bicycle Project Ghana (VBP), we provide bicycles and maintenance training to rural communities all over Ghana and Sierra Leone. More mobility in the bush means better access to work, education, trade centers, and hospitals. Knowing how to maintain a bicycle makes the difference between a bike that is broken and discarded in months and one that lasts for years.
We often have very few women enrolled in classes. Men get first priority in most households, and many women simply cannot ride because no one ever taught them. To address this, I develop programs that give girls an equal shot at learning to ride a bike in a society where they are discouraged from taking up cycling. More often than not, women here are relegated to domestic servitude from a young age. Giving a girl the ability to ride means that she can venture beyond her home, perhaps to find employment, better education, or a social life outside of village chores and strict religious social norms.
Currently, I coordinate our Learn to Ride Program (L2R). We work with Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) to establish after-school classes where girls who want to learn to ride can come and practice on VBP bikes. Over the last two months, I’ve been working in Agosa and Bonkwae, two small neighboring villages in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana. The PCVs and their Counterparts there did a wonderful job teaching. Bree and Patrick in Agosa taught 67 girls to ride over three weeks with the help of Kwame
My favorite part of what we do is working with students like Edith. Edith was one of five girls who showed up for the first day of L2R at Agosa. Due to unforeseen technical difficulties, we only had four bikes, so Edith waited 45 excruciating minutes for her turn to ride.
As soon as she eventually had the shot to get on the bike, she fell over with it on top of her. Edith laughed, scrambled out from underneath it, and tried again, this time with some help from Patrick, the lead trainer. After 20 minutes of being pushed down the hill and walking back up, Patrick let her go on her own. Without realizing it, Edith coasted down the hill solo. Until of course she realized what she was doing, looked around for Patrick, and crashed into a mango tree.
Despite her crashes, having to wait for a turn on the bikes, and any number of other small setbacks, Edith came back to L2R every night for three and a half weeks. She not only learned to ride, she learned to rock her bike fearlessly, navigate cycling traffic, conquer obstacle courses, and to teach other girls how to ride. Along the way she got to play with other girls in a non-school, non-chore, non-church oriented environment. For a Ghanaian girl, that is a rare treat.
The Village Bicycle Project Learn 2 Ride Class creates space where women and girls are free to try new things, succeed, fail, triumph, and eat dirt without being ridiculed or told they are doing something wrong. We drop bikes in communities that have expressed interest in teaching girls to ride and then facilitate practice time for girls on the bikes. Often we’ll have as many as 40 girls sharing 8-9 bicycles every night. Over the course of 3/3.5 weeks, as many as 80 girls get to cycle through the workshop, hangout with friends, and ride bikes just for fun.
I am often asked why the program only focuses on girls when there are boys who cannot ride as well. Here in Ghana, boys have access to bicycles and free time far more readily than girls. This, coupled with cultural norms about girls exercising, and social expectations of domestic servitude for young women, is why boys learn to ride and girls do not. In a class with limited resources, the bikes go to the people who need them most. If local boys truly can’t ride, they have the free time to learn from their friends with bikes, while their sisters have extra chores and household expectations.
For a girl, learning to ride is a ticket to potential independence she doesn’t get anywhere else. Teaching a girl to ride removes one more barrier between her and school, her and an independent income, and her and a social life outside of chores. What’s more, being in a female-centered environment that is entirely outside the house and the church promotes young women’s confidence in themselves and each other in a culture that constantly tells young women they “can’t.”
When I tell my Ghanaian female friends about my work, they either laugh or ask if they can learn too. The laughter comes from the opinion of how silly it is to teach girls when they won’t be able to ride in public, after all, no respectable woman would… The ones who ask if they can learn are employed women who want the mobility to get to their jobs and don’t care what anyone else thinks. In both cases I respond with an invitation, even if you don’t want to ride, hanging out with other women purely for fun is a village event.
Still this begs the question: if riding a bike is laughable, how do you teach girls not to care what other people think? How do you instill that kind of confidence in them and make it stick?
When I talk with older women many of them learned to ride as a girl but stopped once they hit puberty out of “modesty” in a male dominated society. It usually wasn’t one person who told them not to ride, so much as it was people pointing and laughing, boys making fun of their legs, fathers and mothers and older sisters telling them they were “too old” for a bike. My hope is that, as young women grow older, they love their bikes and the independence they gain them enough that they stop caring what anyone says as they ride.
The two women who most exemplify this attitude for me are Denise, my neighbor, and Aisha, our newest mechanic.
Denise is my favorite neighborhood kid. Her house is just up the hill from mine, and she always brings me her bike to fix in the evenings. She races me home on her bicycle everyday she can. Every time, she wins—I joke that it’s because she has no brakes, she says it’s because I am now old. Apparently 23 is just too ancient to be an unmarried woman, let alone an unmarried female bicycle mechanic working with an NGO full of men. I admit, the first few times we raced, I was letting her win—after all, my bike had working gears and hers didn’t, and I was the older and more experienced cyclist. Then one afternoon she cut me off, forcing me into a sand trap and off the dirt road. Sitting on the ground laughing off the dust, I’ve never been so proud of a kid in my life. I also stopped letting her win. I’ll finally fix those brakes tonight; she’s getting too fast to be skidding around without them.
Aisha (above) is a 23-year-old bicycle mechanic from Ngosu, Northern Ghana. Currently, Aisha works for Village Bicycle Project, and she is my best friend in Ghana. Over the last 6 months, I’ve had the distinct privilege of helping her learn basic mechanics, watching her learn to work with students and on bikes, and learning more about her life and her goals. In return, she has shown me every egg and bread stand in Ghana, told me to “suck it up” when I’m sulking, and taught me basic Twi.
When Aisha first came to us, she knew nothing about bikes except how to ride them, and no English apart from “good morning.” Every night we practice her English over the phone or in person, depending on where we are. She is a far quicker study than me—in 6 months her english has become fairly conversant, while my Twi is still limited to basic greetings. She attended a VBP Workshop in September, and at the end, she approached Abdul Fatawu to ask for a job. Then she called 19 times in the next 24 hours to see if he had talked to our boss, Jason. Within three days she was hired. She currently helps support her family back home, and plans to open her own shop as soon as possible, despite her father insisting she gets married first. When I ask her if she’ll get married, she laughs and shakes her head and tells me, “You feed a husband, Clara. A bicycle shop feeds you.”
Abena (above) is the chief’s second wife in Agosa. Her small daughter Princess can’t be out of her mother’s arms for more than a minute without crying. The two of them came to L2R late on day one because Abena had to pick the exact right outfit in which to learn to ride. Clearly the effort paid off—nothing says, “expert lady cyclist” like a white pants suit. Fully suited up and prepared to ride, Abena tackled cycling with her usual flair and determination. When asked why she was trying so hard she explained that she wanted to ride to Techiman (about 15 km away) to visit the chief and his first wife, at the first wife’s house, where the chief spends too much time. Considering this mission of love and revenge, how could we not teach her to ride?
Understanding how the women I work with understand me, is the hardest and most important part of my job. For the most part I work with teens and tweens, none of whom know where California is, let alone Sacramento or San Francisco. For them, the USA is a magical land of rap stars and blonde people where money is easy and everyone has running water. The fact that I am a bicycle fitter (a small boys job here) makes me weird. When I tell them to say “cheese” for a photo, they look at me like I’m crazy. And maybe for them I am. What respectable Ghanaian girl wants to grow up to be an old maid bicycle fitter? I’m all right with that. Convincing them that the crazy white lady isn’t crazy is not the goal of my work. My goal is to help as many young women learn that they have as much mobility as anyone else in society—riding a bike means that they can go and do whatever they please.