Monday, September 19, 2005

Bicycles are always a fun topic in Darfur - whether they're struggling through deep, hot sand or several feet of muddy wadi, the things are an absolute hit in every IDP camp. In any town, a whole section of the market will be dedicated to bicycle accesory shops: every single one of these big black monsters (most people seem to prefer the ancient but sturdy "Phoenix" model) is completely decked out with flashing lamps, colourful streamers, fairy lights, stickers and pretty much anything else that's loud, shiny or electronic.

Some NGOs provide their staff with bicycles, especially in the larger camps like Kalma, and I have recently picked up on an emerging trend in bicycle envy in the smaller camps.

"We need some bicycles too - we would have much more energy for our jobs and perform much better in them if only we did not have to walk so much," one of the volunteers argues recently during a staff meeting, obviously keen to be seen with such a beautiful status symbol.

I ask him if the bicycles would be used by both men and women and he quickly shakes his head. "No, the women don't know how to ride bikes." (Nor would the men want them to, is often the more honest answer - a woman riding a bike is still seen as somewhat of a scandal is this traditional and conservative part of the world.)

A questioning glance at the ladies in the group reveals things might be changing though. "We could learn," one of the young women says hopefully. "We could ride inside the compound until we know how to do it." Some of the men and older women quickly set her straight, and -much to my disappointment- they finally conclude that only the men should be riding the bikes in public.

Their boss tells them she will think about it, but -as usual- the best part of this story emerges when I quiz her about the issue later. "Do they really need bikes in a small camp like this? And how do you feel about buying them just for the men? How many would we need and how much would it cost?"

She laughs and quickly explains that, actually, no one here needs any bicycles at all. As usual, this seemingly simple request merely hides some more complicated twists, turns and not-so-secret personal ambitions.

"Hassan, the one you spoke to, is behind all of this. He got into a lot of debt recently and had to sell his own bicycle. And this is a problem because having a bicycle is a good way of showing off in front of women. Now he wants to get the NGOs to provide him with another one because he's embarassed that he doesn't have his anymore."


At , Blogger Kevane said...

I am enjoying your blog very much. I'm an academic who has worked in Kordofan in the late 1980s early 1990s. I still write a bit about Sudan, and recently wrote a short piece on the JAm budget that dealt a bit with with... bicycles.

Michael Kevane


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