Biking: noble or embarrassing?

I purchased a bike to use in West Africa before I even arrived. I knew I would want one. When I lived in France, I had a bike and loved using it both as part of my daily commute and for longer weekend rides. Occasionally I overloaded the bike just a bit coming back from the grocery store, and I had to move quickly to save the bag with the eggs from falling. Only once, though, did I lose a glass bottle on the pavement. More enjoyable were the kilometers of paved biking trails or packed gravel paths along rivers, through parks and forests, passing mountains, farms, houseboats and wildlife. Biking was enjoyable, economical and environmentally friendly.

Once I got attached to biking in France, I wondered why I hadn’t started earlier. When I lived in the Pacific Northwest (just before France) there were many enthusiasts, but I wasn’t one of them. In the Seattle-Portland corridor, some love biking simply as a weekend sport, while others embrace it consciously as a “green” way to get to work. Riding a bicycle is generally seen as the activity of an environmentally conscious and physically fit person. People who ride their bikes to work are seen to be people who are doing something noble. It’s not (usually) because they can’t afford a car to take them to work; it’s because they’ve left their vehicle at home and have chosen to get on a bicycle for the good of their health, the environment, or both.

Biking in West Africa got off to a slow start for me. Repeated slow starts, in fact, caused by repeated flat tires. Every second or third time I took the bike out, I found one tire or the other was losing air because of some sharp, unseen object in the streets. The good news is, tire repairs were cheap. The bad news is, it was never more than a few rides until the next repair was needed. I realized quickly that if this bike was going to be used, I had to call in help from the outside. So I got a hold of some slime-filled, puncture-resistant inner tubes from the U.S., and my bike has been rolling for months since then.

With that practical problem resolved, I’ve been able to discover what’s culturally odd about riding a bike in Niger.

Some days in Niger, I  ride my bike to work in the morning. The heat isn’t as bad in the mornings, it’s a 10-minute ride from my house, and I get there a few minutes early to wash off and change into a clean shirt (the heat isn’t as bad in the morning, but it’s still hot). Perfect. Now my wife has the car to haul the two kids around wherever she needs to go, I’ve got a tad more exercise in my week, and while I inhale plenty of air pollution on the way, I’m not guilty of producing any on my commute.

But nobody looks at me admiringly here. Nobody applauds. Nobody comes up to chat about the sport of biking or doing something good for the planet. They mostly point. Sometimes they grin. And usually, at least once per commute, someone looks at me and bursts out laughing.

The stares are normal. Those come if I drive or walk down the street, too, because I’m white and most of my neighbors are not. I’m getting used to that. But bursting out laughing caught me by surprise. Why was it so funny that I was riding a bike? When I put on my running shorts and jog a couple miles, I can tell some people think it’s odd, but they don’t point and laugh. So I asked my African co-worker, “Why do people laugh when they see a white guy riding a bike?”

He laughed nervously and looked away.

“It’s okay,” I pressed, “I won’t be offended, I’m just curious.”

He replied, “It’s just that, we see a white person and we think, ‘oh, he’s well-off’ and so we think, ‘why isn’t he driving a car?’”

“Oh, I see. So bikes here are for people who can’t afford cars or motorcycles.”

I explained how some people from my hometown are proud of riding their bikes to work, even if they have a car. Now whenever I ride my bike to work, we have an exchange that goes like this:

“Ah, you’ve taken the most economic method of transport today!”

“Yes, and the most environmentally friendly!”

“And you get exercise, too!”

And then we laugh, because he understands where I’ve come from, and I now better understand where I live.

And somehow, when I know there’s someone laughing with me, the people who laugh at me when I ride past don’t bother me so much.

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