The Australian and his South African friend were exactly what you would imagine when I talk about two young, fit, cyclists. They had tight shirts, spandex shorts, expensive gear and inevitable arrogance of men who break a sweat only to prove a point. I met them on Lake Malawi when they asked me to snap a picture of them in front of a sunset.
They planned to ride across the country, something they had done before in other Southern African nations. And they wouldn’t be the first or last to attempt such an adventure; in fact, travel websites often recommend this as one of the best ways to experience a foreign land. That’s all fine and good, cyclists, but here is some advice: stay out of Malawi.
Like mules and horses carry the heavy loads of villagers in the mountains of South America, bicycles carry them across the somewhat flat land of Malawi. Along all main roads throughout the countryside it’s possible to find men balancing sacks of coal, maize, fertilizer, firewood and anything else that proves too difficult to balance over their heads – though women often manage to walk from place to place with firewood on their heads and babies on their backs. It’s also more common to find bicycle taxis outside of major cities than it is to find cabbies that run on fuel.
As such, the bicycle is perhaps the single most useful tool in the life of an average Malawian. That is, Malawian men. To find a woman pedaling a bicycle is almost as odd as finding a woman paddling a dugout canoe on the lake, and believe me, men laugh out loud at a woman paddling a canoe.
On a particular Sunday a village woman had an event to attend in town. She put on her best suit – a plain light blue jacket, matching skirt and a neatly-pressed white blouse with modest black heels, – and asked for a bicycle taxi. A small cushion on top of the back wheel is all she had to balance herself, because under no circumstance would it be alright for her to grab on to the taxi rider. She sat with her legs to the left of the bicycle, perfectly poised with a straight back and crossed feet, holding on to her purse that sat on her lap, and maintained zen-like calm and balance as the man proceeded to peddle through dirt roads, sides of highways and small openings in between busy pedestrian ways. Muzungu women who take bicycle taxis are not expected to sit lady-like; we would probably fall on our ear at the first bump.
The bicycle taxi riders are lucky enough (if they limit their business) to carry only people and not cargo. But the majority of men who own a bicycle in rural areas will use their bikes for everything; the same way a Western man would use a family SUV.
The piles sometimes balanced on bicycles can reach the same height of trucks that fly by them on highways. Once the stack on the back of the bike gets too heavy or unstable, the men push their loads instead of riding them, but there are plenty of men who manage one uphill pedal after another with more weight than airlines allow their passengers.
And so, when a muzungu in spandex shorts and helmet carrying little more than a bottle of water starts to take over village riders, well, it’s a bit of an awkward scene, to say the least.