He picked up his pace as I quickened mine. “Oooo, mambo,” he leered as he crossed the street to meet me on the side of the road. “Napenda, napenda,” he murmured as he walked next to me. In my Swahili language class, I would later learn this translates to “I like, I love.” He was a stranger, but he insisted on accompanying me home. It was a public road, after all, and I was alone.
It was one of the first weeks in my new home, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and I was still getting used to the cultural shift. Catcalling is a global phenomena, but this was the first time a guy had walked with me beyond the point of comfortable.
What I couldn’t have predicted at that point was that my favorite hobby would become a way to prevent a repetition of such an encounter.
When I moved to East Africa in November 2015, my to-do list was roughly as follows: find a place to live, unpack, get a bike, explore the city.
It seemed like a simple task. Cycling had always made me feel free.
In my Canadian hometowns, biking was what got me from Point A to Point B, from friend to family, grocery store to coffee shop, home to work. I’ve biked in thunderstorms, along highways, and through one of the coldest Canadian winters on record. In travel, cycling has opened cities for me, and I’ve explored Beijing, Copenhagen, Whitehorse, Paris, and beyond from the saddle of my bike.
My move to Dar es Salaam in November marked the start of my longest stint abroad. The line between home and travel began to blur. Within it, the role of cycling shifted, too.
Let’s talk about safety. During orientation for my new job, the local staff was upfront: the way you look at security here has to be different than the way you consider it at home. Pockets can be picked and handbags hooked on car mirrors, their owners dragged behind the vehicle. Walking alone as a woman, especially after dark, is not advised.
With this new information, I began to crawl inside myself. I highly value my independence and the ability to answer the call of curiosity by wandering new places. As a partial introvert who loves being outdoors, I do not take well to being told I should not be outside by myself.
That’s where biking comes in.
Back in Canada, I bike for many reasons. Cycling is a way for me to be environmentally, socially, and physically minded. The satisfaction of beating public transit during rush hour can only be described as euphoric. Biking gives me freedom from traffic, freedom from relying on cars and buses, freedom from sitting still.
In Dar es Salaam, biking gives me the freedom to.
One of those freedoms is the freedom to navigate the city as a solo female. I would not have anticipated that benefit before coming to Dar. I’ve always known biking as an important part of my life, but never thought it would be essential in allowing me to regain my sense of independence as a single 20-something female.
You get a lot of attention as a mzungu (white person) walking around Dar. You become even more of a spectacle when you’re a female mzungu walking alone. Men yell “mambo!” from the side of the road and while riding on the back of bodaboda motorcycles. A puckering sound is directed your way through pursed lips. Much of this is harmless, but it is still unwanted attention, unwanted attention that can follow you down the road or along the beach.
Biking provides the opportunity to out-cycle these fears, and to escape the expectations men may have because of the simple fact that I am walking alone as a woman. It also helps debunk a few assumptions: that all Western expats drive in air-conditioned comfort from work to shops to gated homes; that only men bicycle; and that all women must be accompanied by a man.
Six months into my time in Tanzania, I’ve normalized the routine of staying safe, with or without a bike. I casually use my bra as a purse, carry anything of value in nondescript black plastic bags, and do a cost-risk analysis of my belongings before leaving my apartment. I’ve perfected the ability of walking with conviction but without seeming panicked. I’ve learned to look at the ground when passing a group of men, while still being aware of their every move.
I’m no longer scared, but the practice of prevention is tiring.
Cycling again saves the day. Biking is my key to happiness – a means to transform the internal and external challenges of living abroad into sweat and serotonin. It numbs the frustrations I have about the perceived weaknesses of my gender and provides a way for me to gauge my mental health. I know I’m depressed when I don’t want to bike. If I ever stop completely, I will have to re-examine if I’m in the right place.
Many women aren’t lucky enough to have cycling as an escape.
It is rare, I’ve been told, for Tanzanian women to bike. I am not here to say that women need to bike to be liberated or safe, but I do want women of all cultures to know it is okay to do so. I want to get so many shocked stares during my cycling trips that this activity becomes the norm for women in Tanzania, not the exception.
I often reflect on these thoughts as I cycle around Dar. On one of my first rides I passed the spot where I was initially followed by my unwelcome suitor. I was again called at from the curb, but I didn’t look back.
Hilary Duff is a freelance journalist, communications consultant, and cycling enthusiastic currently living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. A Canadian-transplant, she can be hired for consulting work around East Africa. Hilary can be found on Instagram @hilarydufftz and at www.hilaryduff.work.