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Favorite Blog Throwbacks #3 – Originally posted on April 8, 2011
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If you had asked me five years ago if I could imagine living and working in a predominantly Muslim country, I would have laughed…uncomfortably. Me, an independent, liberal, strong minded and opinionated single woman choosing to live in an area where women are “socially inferior” to men sounds like a terrible match. Yet, when I made the decision to volunteer as a bicycle instructor for an organization called Village Bicycle Project (VBP) and they told me the place they needed me to go to was Sierra Leone, I knew I was up for a big challenge.
Some might wonder how on earth teaching women how to ride bicycles in Africa can be classified as an actual project at all. Over 99% of Africans do not own a car. They rely on their own two feet as the most economical way of getting around. Alternative options such as public transportation and taxis are often unreliable, expensive and inaccessible.
Bicycles completely change the game.
Often, if a person has access to a bicycle, it not only improves their access to schools, farms, markets and healthcare, it also greatly improves their chances of escaping poverty. If they’re able to spend less time and energy commuting to all the places they need to go to, they have more time and energy to devote to their work, studies, families and community.
Women in Africa are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to accessing bicycles. With a limited supply of bicycles, men rather than women usually get the opportunity to own and ride bicycles. Frequently, women have to walk far distances to accomplish domestic duties that include farming, marketing, caring for their children, and gathering firewood, food, and water.
Young girls are often expected to help their family with these duties which unfortunately pull them away from school. It has been proven that young women who stay in school longer have fewer, healthier children and a better chance at supporting themselves and their families. But if a girl is spending hours upon hours walking to and from school each day, on top of having to complete her domestic duties and school work, the responsibilities add up and often times they end up dropping out because their home life requires more attention than school.
So, it is said that when you teach a man how to ride a bike, you teach one person; when you teach a women how to ride, you teach an entire community.
In 2009, when Village Bicycle Project founder Dave Peckham visited Lunsar, he met Sister Bernadette, the head of a local kindergarten school. Sister Bernadette invited Dave to attend a track and field day event and Dave noted the absence of girl participants in the bicycle activities. When asked why this was the case, Sr. Bernadette responded, “It’s because none of the girls know how to ride and no one has the time or desire to teach them.”
Sister Bernadette expressed the desire to have someone come and teach the girls and Dave agreed to help find a volunteer for the job. I became that volunteer.
For seven months, I took on the mission of teaching and empowering school girls with a bicycle education. Besides the fact that we a library of just 21 bicycles, I faced a few problems that hindered my immediate progress. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t understand local customs and wasn’t religious. I didn’t understand how I was less respected as an unmarried woman in her thirties. It was unheard of for a woman to be a bike mechanic. Most importantly, none of the people I initially met could understand why an American volunteer would travel to their country specifically to teach bicycling skills to girls.
So, it was a gradual, uphill battle. At each new school and community that I taught bicycle riding and maintenance, only the boys knew how to ride, never the girls. There was no one interested in teaching the girls, but ultimately people became receptive to my efforts. And the girls I met were thrilled with the opportunity to ride.
There was a lot for me to learn, too. But thanks to the undying support and generosity from the people of Lunsar, Muslims and Christians together, I taught more than 250 schoolgirls to ride. My youngest student was five years old. I also was able to find two local people to help me teach and who have continued to teach since I’ve come home.
A year after his initial trip, Dave Peckham returned to visit the Sisters and received a lovely surprise. Sister Bernadette’s students were preparing for their track and field competition that Saturday. This time, though, there were girls running and biking.
Brittany Richardson volunteered with Village Bicycle Project in 2009 and is still active with the organization today, helping to organize the shipment of VBP’s first container of bicycles to Sierra Leone.