The Art of the Bicycle*

The Art of the Bicycle

Rwandans excel at what I call “the art of the bicycle”.    We in the U.S. have a very limited idea of what bicycles are for.     In a country where very few people have personal vehicles, the use of a bicycle to transport goods has developed into a true art form. That this has occurred in a country where there is no destination where one might want to travel, within the same city  as well as between them, that does not involve going up or down at least one hill and, more likely than not, several of them, is a  testament to the true artistry of those who use bicycles.

Here are some highlights of what you can carry on the back of bicycle:
1.  (My all-time favorite) 18-20 flats of eggs, the same size of the flats we have in the U.S., about 14”x14”, stacked one upon the other, tied onto the back of the bicycle, reaching up to the same height as the crown of the rider’s head.
All I see in my mind’s eye when I see eggs being transported this way is what it would look like if the cyclist lost control or was hit by a moto taxi or car. I am also amazed that the eggs on the bottom of the stack don’t get crushed but, apparently they don’t, because there they are always there at the market when I get there, waiting for me to purchase.
2. Empty plastic jerrycans, each about 2 feet high and maybe 1.5 feet wide, and 8” or so thick, lashed together as a massive cube, 6 feet high, 6 feet wide, and 3 feet deep.
Mind you, I can barely slide one of these when it is filled with water. I can’t begin to lift them which is how I knew that they had to be empty when lashed together in a massive lump for transport on a bicycle.  Still pretty impressive.
3. 6-8 foot long pieces of sugar cane, tied together in two bunches, each perhaps a 12-18 inches in diameter, one tied on either side of the rear tire, with their leafy ends reaching towards the sky so that it looks someone is transporting two bunches of giant asparagus.
4. 10 foot long pieces of lumber, laid across the back and extending out a good 4 feet on either side of the bicycle.
5. 8-10 foot long grasses, tied in bunches 1-2 feet thick, drooping off either side of the rear of the bicycle, but not quite touching the ground. I’m not sure what these are for; I speculate that they will be dried and used to weave baskets.
5. Huge bags (1.5 ft diameter, 5 ft long) of charcoal, two stacked on on top of the other,
6. Furniture, beds, sofas, arm chairs.
7. People:  Women usually sit  side-saddle on a little platform over the rear wheel, some are cushioned, some not. I can’t quite figure out how the cyclist is able to stay vertical with the extra weight of the legs on one side, but they do. Men and children  usually straddle the little platform.
8. Bags of grain stacked one on top of the other, presumably 40-50 lbs apiece.
9. Metal bins 4 feet across, 2 feet high, 2 feet in depth, filled with baked goods.  I had the misfortune to see one topple over and watched as everyone scrambled to dust the bread off and put it back into the bin. Luckily, it wasn’t full at the time and this is the only time that I have ever seen a fallen bicycle.
10. Firewood, tied in bunches, stacked one of top of the other.                                                                    11.  A huge bag filled with unseen riches, 2 feet in diameter, sitting upright on the back of the bicycle to a height well over a foot above the rider’s head.

Basically, if you can tie something together, you can get it on the back of a bicycle.   Sometimes the loads are so big that there is no room left for the rider, who just walks alongside the bicycle. Of course, the bikes themselves are all well-used and not necessarily well-maintained. And they do not have even two gears, let alone ten.

It is clear that not only do we in the U.S. lack an understanding of  the true value of a bicycle, we are also wimps when we use them for what we do use them for.   I was regularly embarassed on my daily commute in Ruhango when I had to switch gears on my ten-speed bicycle to make it up the same hill that my comrades on their one-speed bikes were sailing up without any apparent effort.   My only consolation was that I am nearly 70 and they were in their 20’s and 30’s….

*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.