“The most beautiful thing about meeting these women was not their deep gratitude for the bikes, but their newfound resistance to simply being content with the gift alone – one change empowered them to do more and demand more for themselves and their communities.”
-Rose Howse (below, preparing to carry a water jug on her head during gb connect 2017)
I once heard an activist explain the difference between charity and social justice to a group of children. "It isn't that charity is bad, because it's always good to help people," she said. "But social justice is even better, because social justice is building a world where we don't need charity." Before my globalbike Connect trip to Tanzania in the summer of 2017, I’d had one previous international volunteering experience. I worked at an NGO in Mexico that connected poor youth to rich “sponsors” in the U.S. who paid their school fees. Though the program changed the lives of a lot of deserving students, I understand now that it was a charity that worked within, rather than against, a system stacked against certain groups of people.
I thought of this often in the months leading up to the globalbike trip, while asking everyone from my father’s coworkers to my grandmother’s water aerobics classmates for money to buy bikes for women I’d never met on a continent I’d never visited. From talking with others who’d made the trip before, I understood that a bike could change – or, in the case of medic bikes, even save – an individual life. But it wasn’t until I met the extraordinary women of Enaboishu, Tusaidiane, and Kazi na Sala that I understood that globalbike’s real undertaking is to aid women in dismantling gender inequity.
During our trip, we had the opportunity to visit a group of women who’d received bikes a year ago. They gave a presentation about the different goods that they make and transport to market using the bikes: items like homemade popsicles, traditional jewelry and crops. When they suggested that we fundraise for motorcycles next, it was clear that an entrepreneurial spirit had taken a strong hold. The most beautiful thing about meeting these women was not their deep gratitude for the bikes, but their newfound resistance to simply being content with the gift alone – one change empowered them to do more and demand more for themselves and their communities.
That evening, while a flaming Tanzanian sun slunk down behind Mt. Kilimanjaro, we sat around a campfire outside the village and learned that the next day, we would visit a women-owned and operated bike repair shop at another cooperative. Our trip leader told us how she’d heard from a woman in the cooperative that the bike shop had begun to positively change how her husband perceived her. In East Africa (as in most places), domestic unpaid work falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women, who then have less time to embark on the kinds of professional endeavors that might gain them further opportunities and the respect of those in power. Perhaps my favorite moment of the entire trip came the following day: listening to a woman bike mechanic confidently explain the financial practices of the repair shop and her ideas for strengthening the business. A close second was learning that this same woman would help train other female mechanics in a second repair shop being built in a nearby community.
Giving a bike to a woman may be an act of charity, but the lasting reverberations of that act are far more profound.
gb connect 2017 visit to the Kazi na Sala bike shop. Rose is second from the left, front row.