This is a first post attempt to try to describe in writing some of the many things that are truly ordinary in my daily observations. There are many simple phenomenon that are not special or unique but fascinating nonetheless and perhaps even more difficult to portray in a balanced and sensitive manner. Bicycles are a pretty easy one, malnourished children are far more difficult. We’ll see what I can do with it – maybe it will become a Saturday thing. Everything that follows should be prefaced with: In this corner of rural western Uganda…
There’s something pastoral and idyllic in seeing the mzee peddling, gliding, meandering through the village on what was once a shiny black single speed. If he’s a herder he’ll keep the ubiquitous short wooden staff propped up on a shoulder, a third appendage connecting handlebar to core. Or to see the young boys hot-shotting; one hand, no hands, drifted corners, the passenger on the rear wheel rack laughing in unison. But most often bicycles are a means of industrious transport.
Bicycles are not ridden uphill. Flat, check; downhill, golden; uphill, bicycles carry only the weary upper body of the man as the rest of him follows, the left leg crossing the right on each step of his angled slog. There’s the nonchalant hunch, elbows resting, arms crossed, hands draped casually over the handlebars; the return trip. Then there’s the market trip; there’s a fight in the weight of the fruit of the labor, one last push to get product to market, one last effort to make a buck. A fifty kilo half sack of maize for the mill? No biggy. The angle grows slightly, the hands grip the cheap shiny bars, left right left right, maybe the shirt comes off, depends on the weather. Six bunches of matooke (green bananas)? That load calls for full exertion and maybe a Heisman pose – right arm wrapped snug around a bunch of bananas, left extended to the handlebars to keep that sucker in line.
One size fits all. How tall do you have to be to ride a bicycle? To pilot, we’ll say four feet even. Passengers need only the ability to sit upright and hold on; we’ll say three years old, two with proper supervision. At four feet tall your inseam just isn’t long enough to sit astride and reach the pedals – but you are nimble enough to weasel the right leg between toptube and downtube and determined to succeed at all costs. The arms quake, the right can barely reach the handlebar, wrapped as you with your center of mass listing ten inches to port. The counterweight is the bike, plus maybe the tongue hanging out to the right. And maybe your passengers / younger siblings lean right to help the cause.
Roadmaster, Hero, Avon, they come in black with different variations of decals true to the Manchester United color scheme. The spring cushioned seat: if ever there was a design intended to spur the sale of replacement parts it is the standard issue spring cushioned seat. Yes the roads are rough, and no the bikes don’t have shocks, but the glorious relief of the spring cushioned seat is short lived. After weeks or months in that granny saddle the rear springs go first, the nose starts to rise in the front, and soon enough the wide winged seat is aimed skyward. The common remedy is to pull out the seatpost and rest the saddle, springs removed, directly on the toptube – no relief there.
What can’t be loaded onto the rack on the back of a bicycle? Two adults. A cow – a goat or medium sized pig in the lap of a passenger, yes, but a cow, not likely. No more than a dozen hanging chickens – but up to 50 in a large papyrus basket. The hanging chicken off the handlebars is one of the great spectator sights: said bird has its feed bound with a scrap of twine or maybe just some long dried grass and then the feet are looped over the handlebars, sometimes up to three each side. If the bird has other inverted company he plays it cool, strength in numbers. If not he’s likely to keep two eyes dead ahead; calmly examining the trajectory and the impending jostles. I’ve never seen a hanging bird struggle, cluck or cock-a-doodle-doo. Pineapples or cabbage, no more than maybe 60, each held in place with an intricate series of twists and binds of dried grass and elastic rubber ties. No more than four crates of soda. No timber over four meters in length accompanied by no more than one sack of concrete.
Ever tried to start a single speed from a standstill? No, you take the two or three casual jump-start steps, plant that left foot on a peddle and then casually drape the right over the saddle and into place. Not with a stack of soda crates, or even a passenger sitting in the way. At 5’9” I’m just about the tallest guy in town but every adult male has mastered a technique to thrust that right left up through the narrow gap between chest and toptube – all without risking the perilous equilibrium on the rack. And then off they go.