Chi Onwurah MP reports on cycling, women and Africa

Chi Onwurah MP for Newcastle reports from her recent trip to Africa  and gives us her perspective of what it is like to cycle in a local town in Namibia. An account about the social value of cycling, women empowerment and hope for the future:

chi-cycling-2“I recently returned to cycling after a break of two decades, thanks to the encouragement and support of many but especially Newcycling and Super Cycling Councillor Marion Talbot. I am really enjoying getting around the constituency on my bike whenever I can. It is encouraging, but also I suppose slightly depressing, that constituents are generally both surprised and impressed when they see me arriving on by bike – should it really be so exceptional?

So when the opportunity arose to do a cycle tour of the Katutura township near the Namibian capital of Windhoek I jumped at the chance. I was travelling to Namibia as part of a parliamentary delegation by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Africa – which I chair – looking at trade with Africa post Brexit. The APPG Africa exists to promote positive, mutually beneficial links between the UK and Africa, helping to overcome some of the stereotypes which unfortunately still exist in the UK and beyond.

Township tours can be difficult in both political and community terms. How do you reconcile vicarious ‘poverty tourism’ with the need to highlight the conditions and challenges of communities as well as bringing in much-needed jobs? How can visitors come away with an authentic impression of a community when you’re only there for three or four hours? It’s certainly difficult in a big bus or an air conditioned limousine. But on a bike with a community organiser and activist as a guide then you have a much better chance of being a part of it.

The bike tour was led by Anna Mafwila who owns Katu Tours. As she explained, on a bike you’re not so removed from the people you’re trying to engage with and you breathe the same air – and smells. You also get a more ground-level understanding of the road infrastructure (but more of that later).

Anna is a real believer in the power of cycling because the independence it can offer people on low incomes. She has seen her own share of this – she lived in exile under apartheid and returned as a teenager. As part of her business she set up a charity the Kings’s Daughters Bicycle Workshop, which takes young women prostitutes off the street and gives them a trade – bike maintenance! But unfortunately there are not yet enough bikes in Katutura to support them all.

We saw some of the interesting history of Namibia on our bikes. It was as a colony of first Germany and then Apartheid South Africa. The Apartheid system was enforced as cruelly as in South Africa. SWAPO – the political party and liberation movement of Namibia – is generally considered to have been born in Katutura in response to their attempts at ethnic cleansing. The bullets of previous battles can still be seen in the houses today. They were certainly visible as we cycled by.

Cycling is a fantastic way to see a neighbourhood. It’s quick enough to cover a lot of ground in three hours but slow enough to take it in and engage. But there’s also a real lack of cycling support and awareness in the town. Car drivers overtook us with just a few inches to spare and I longed for the (generally) much more polite drivers of Newcastle who respect the Highway Code recommendation of a full passing distance. Equally the potholes and road markings were much worse than those many complain of here – and there was not one cycle lane.

This is a great pity. I remember a friend of my Mum’s describing the difference a bike made to her as a young woman in the forties, the freedom it represented both as a woman and as a worker, suddenly able to venture further from home and Newcastle than ever before. The situation in Namibia seemed to suggest that bicycles were being leapfrogged by mopeds and cars. If Namibia did not enjoy the benefits of cycling, it would be a great shame. It is certainly something that Africa’s cycling advocates like Amanda are seeking to help change.

Amanda Ngabirano, who campaigns for better cycling in Uganda, summarises the point well when she says “I see a big opportunity, especially in Africa, if we invested in safe cycling infrastructure, especially in our urban centers where most trips made are short. We are still green, never been dark at all and we are definitely an enviable continent in many ways. We could shine with more people cycling safely and inspire the rest of the world to learn from us.”