LUSHOTO, TZ–When rolling through the hinterlands of Africa, shrink-wrapping one’s womanly form in Lycra just won’t do. As it is, a white person is cause for much discussion in these parts. “Mzungu,” people announce when I walk by, using a Kiswahili word that roughly means “whitey.” A mzungu on a bicycle elicits even more comment, as people see the bicycle as rather lowly transport for the purportedly wealthy mzungu. Women on bicycles are likewise as rare as rhinoceroses.
And so a white woman on a bicycle is an event not unlike the circus pulling into town. Children rush out of schools to greet me. Women drop their chickens. Men marvel, and then discuss among themselves.
Mind you that all of this goes down in a really friendly way, with people smiling and calling out, “Jambo!” (Hello!) and “Karibu!” (Welcome!). Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to attract any more attention, or any less wholesome attention, than I already am.
And so I’ve settled into my modest Muslim cycling kit–loose mountain-biking pants or cycling shorts worn under a black cotton skirt, coupled with long-sleeve cotton shirts that I picked up at FabIndia in New Delhi when I visited Lucy a few years ago.
My demure dress probably makes me a bit more approachable, as I am clearly (and for once) not some half-nekkid wench come to upset the social order. But the question remains: am I an inspiration to the ladies to take up their bikes and lay claim to the highways, or a cautionary tale of what happens when you don’t marry well? My guide, Jerome, (pictured here) and fellow-traveler, David, reckon that the answer is the latter, and suggested that we complete the scene by hanging a sign around my neck that says, “Woman for sale.” I recommended that they add “Long legs! Strong teeth! Good SAT scores!” to the sign.
Meanwhile, the people I roll past seem to admire my exertions. “No way I can do,” said a woman my age carrying about 50 pounds of firewood on her head. “You must be very strong,” several men have speculated. But the surest sign of respect is the term of address they use when I’m on my bike. On foot, I get called “dada”–that is, sister. But when I’m on two wheels, I become “mama.”