Cycling has always made me feel free.
In Ottawa my bike is what gets me from Point A to Point B, from friend to family, grocery store to coffee shop, home to work. In travel, cycling has opened up cities for me, and I have explored Beijing, Lumbini, Copenhagen, Whitehorse, Paris, and beyond from the saddle of my bike.
Since moving to Dar a few weeks ago, the lines between home and travel have started to blend. With it, the role of cycling – which I already knew to be a key element of what makes me happy – has shifted into an even more important role.
Let’s talk about safety. During the orientation for my new job, our Country Manager was upfront with us: the way you look at security here has to be different than the way you consider it at home. Bags can get swiped by passing motorbikes, purses can be snatched off of laps while sitting in cars, pockets can be picked. As a woman, walking by yourself is not recommended, especially after dark.
Anyone who knows me knows I am independent to a fault. It’s an independence mixed with a slight invincibility complex and a desire to explore. It’s a confidence elixir that has helped me travel solo in countries around the world. As a partial introvert who loves the outdoors, I do not take well to being told I should not be outside by myself.
In Ottawa I bike for the practicality of it, for the environmental benefit, and because I just damn well love it. The satisfaction of beating public transit during rush hour can only be described as euphoric. Biking gives me freedom from traffic, freedom from relying on cars and buses, freedom from sitting still.
Here, biking gives me the freedom to.
What I mean is this: biking gives me the freedom to be outside by myself as a woman. It is an unanticipated benefit of cycling, one I could not have predicted before coming to Dar. I’ve always known biking would be an important part of my life, but I never knew it would be so essential in simply allowing me to go about my daily activity as a single 20-something female.
(By the way, anyone who thinks this “freedom from” vs. “freedom to” concept sounds familiar, here is a full disclosure: I just started reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. She talks about this idea of “freedom from” and “freedom to” in the context of having rights taken away as a perceived means of safety and security.)
As a mzungu (white person) walking around Dar, you already get called at. You become even more of a spectacle when you’re a female mzungu on a bike. Men yell “mambo!” from the side of the road, from the back of boda bodas (motorcycles). A puckering sound is directed at you through pursed lips. Much of this is harmless, but it is still unwanted attention, unwanted attention that may be able to follow me down the road or along the beach while I walk by myself.
Biking provides me the ability to out-cycle these fears, and to escape the expectations that men may have because of the brief eye contact I offer, because of the polite smile my Canadian-ness predisposes.
But while part of this post is me discussing the role cycling has already played in equalizing my experience as a woman in a new country, part of it is also to lament and demand a change to the way women are perceived in different parts of the world.
It is not fair that I am somehow less at threat as a woman if I walk down the street with a man, no matter the capacity of that man to defend me. It reinforces the perception that women are weak, insecure, and easy, and that a man is her protector. I understand that gender roles differ by culture, but I don’t have to agree with that difference.
The past few weeks have shed light on the incredible privilege I have as a woman in Canada – a country, mind you, no less scarred by its disregard for missing and murdered Indigenous women, its continued inability for women and men to have the same salary in the workplace. Let me be clear: no country is good, while another is bad, and we have not reached the point where we can say one nation has eradicated gender inequality while others have not. It is a spectrum, and we should all be fighting to make our way to the right end of it.
Which brings me back to biking.
The other day my coworker Alex and I decided to go for a golden hour cycle in our neighbourhood. We were both wearing dresses with shorts underneath, and we were peddling at a comparable speed to traffic. As expected, we got stared at by women and men, the latter group offering a generous selection of cat calls.
Women, I’ve been told by a former Tanzanian coworker, do not bike. I am not here to say that women need to bike to be liberated, but I do want them to know that it is okay to do so, whether you’re wearing a dress or shorts and a baseball cap. I want to get so many shocked stares that this little tidbit of daily activity becomes a norm for women in Dar, not an exception.
I want women to know that biking is not just an activity for men, and that cycling can be a viable and safe way to travel in this city.
For the first time ever it’s the confidence boost I need, too.