“She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.” - Susan B. Anthony
In America during the 1890s, the bicycle provided women with unprecedented autonomy of mobility and abolished many old fashions, including corsets, bustles, and long voluminous skirts. Bicycles came to epitomize the quintessential “new woman” of the late 19th Century. She was believed to be college educated, active in sports, interested in pursuing a career, and looking for a marriage based on equality. The image of the “new women” was also almost always portrayed on a bicycle! An 1895 article found in the American Wheelman, mentions suffragist leader, Elizabeth Cady Stanton who predicted: “The bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect, self-reliance….”
At a conference I attended on cycling, the coffee break chatter included this intriguing question: “What can be more picturesque than a woman on the bicycle?” After a few moments of loud deliberations none of the cycling scholars were able to come up with a clever enough answer, but the expected answer was very obvious: “TWO women riding bicycles!” What a perfect match for the testimony of women’s rights activist, Susan B. Anthony, who stated: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel… the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
It’s amazing to witness people from different walks of life; different countries or differing religions work together for the social good. Such is the compelling story about five women who indirectly and directly empower each other to advocate for the usage of the bicycle as a means of transport in Uganda’s Capital, Kampala. When the London based staff writer, Maeve Shearlaw of The Guardian, wrote an article in August 2015 titled, "Potholes, sewage and traffic hostility: can Kampala ever be a bike-friendly city?", she was most likely not anticipating that a year later her story would inspire three female students from Sweden’s Red Cross College University in Stockholm. The three were taking a course called: Documentary in the World, as a part of a one-year program focused on global social issues.
After reading the article, Emilia Stålhammar, Elsa Löwdin and Veronica Pålsson, who are from different parts of Sweden, agreed that the Dutch educated urban planner, Amanda Ngabirano, a lecturer at the Makerere University who is also a persistent and persuasive advocate for the implementation of bike lanes in the business district of Kampala, would be the most suitable subject for their documentary. Upon approval from their professors, Birger Nilsson and Mathias Monarque, they traveled to Uganda in January and in March of 2016 for hands-on research and filming sessions.
Initially, the goal was to learn the intricacies and subtleties of film production all the way from taking an idea to script, and directing, photographing, and editing it into a finished product. Instead, on top of obtaining a diploma, they also ended up with a 15-minute award-winning documentary, entitled: Cycologic. “When we first arrived in Kampala, we were overwhelmed by the traffic situation. There are endless queues, pollution, motorcyclists and cars attacking you from every angle, and it felt like a war zone.”- reflects one of the directors, Emilia Stålhammar, on their first impressions of Kampala. Film and cycling experts at 11th the International Cycling Film Festival in Herne, Germany, presented them with the Goldene Kurbel that is perceived within the cycling community as the equivalent of the Oscar for bicycle related films. They also won the Audience Award, Three Golden Spokes, in Krakow, Poland, in the second leg of this festival.
The coincidental and intuitive synergy that these outdoor loving women displayed in making a societal difference is admirable, but so is the determination of the Swedish trio who risked taking out personal loans to make the production a reality. The truth is, nowadays it takes extraordinary measures to tell such a story and to be heard loud and clear.
Besides sharing Amanda’s passion for a downtown car-free zone for bicycles in Kampala, the film directors wanted to promote new found freedom for women that has led to greater social justice and equity for the African people. Again, Amanda delivers perfectly in this aspect: Seeing a woman riding a bicycle should not be seen as a sign of courage and fearlessness, but rather a sign of safe streets; and that should be the focus of the planning authorities.”
Besides the positive outcomes of the bicycle on a woman’s societal status in America in the 1890s, and the current struggles Amanda displayed in Uganda, other countries have been going through many of the same historical experiences. When eighth grade girls in rural India received a bicycle to help them attend and complete school, they were much more likely to do so. Similarly, in his 1999 book, Bicycle Citizens: The Political World of Japanese Housewives, Robin M. LeBlanc reveals that among other things, the bicycle worked to liberate many women from sexual harassment too often encountered on public transportation in Japan.
Amanda dreams selflessly and big for Africa: “I am dreaming of my Africa with safe cycling infrastructure for her future: where all can freely choose to ride somewhere, when they want, where our children will stop riding in our houses and compounds, but get on streets and remain safe from traffic cruelty. And to be honest, I am dreaming of leaders who have this same dream.” When you learn that Amanda, a 37 year old married mother of two, was taught how to ride a bicycle in 2009; and after realizing how expensive and inconvenient it was to commute as a student in The Netherlands, it is clear that she is an agent (force) of (rapid) change. “Riding bicycles promotes social justice and equity since the other members of society considered poor have access to safe cycling facilities,” Amanda adds. “It also promotes social cohesion since both the poor and rich can all ride on the same lanes, and the bicycle is just a bicycle.”
As for the “three Swedish crowns”: Emilia Stålhammar, Elsa Löwdin, and Veronica Pålsson, or perhaps they should be called “Sweden’s three rising stars of storytelling,” they live their dream and enjoy every second of it. Their hope is that “Cycologic” will be a stepping-stone to making other documentaries that will connect passionately as a bridge to bring topics of hope and human interest to the public realm.
According to Kampala Capital City Authority Association: "The pilot project of bike lanes on Namiermbe Road is on schedule at the moment. The design review has been successfully finished and construction will begin in December 2016.” Amanda hopes that this Christmas will be a “Very Merry Christmas” for all, not only for bicycle lovers. The only question that remains is: will Santa Claus (or his goodwill helpers) have enough bicycles to supply the many that are needed by Kampala’s residents? ... as cycling is everyone's business!
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All photos courtesy of Emilia Stålhammar, Elsa Löwdin, and Veronica Pålsson