Women's Cycling in Africa | The Ongoing Fight Against a "Culture of Chauvinism"
The push for the progression of women's cycling is on. But a lot must change before it can flourish...
Words by Stuart Kenny | Illustration by Lewis Gillies
“In the real world, in all sports, we know that gender equality is important. In Africa that’s not the culture. In Africa the culture is chauvinism."
I’m speaking to Linda Warren, a 27-time Zimbabwean national cycling champion and one of the leading figures involved in the recently formed Africa Rising Women’s Cycling Program (ARWC). It's a movement created to fight for the progress of exactly that in a continent where a bicycle is not something generally owned by a woman.
Linda has been involved with the National Cycling Federation of Zimbabwe for over 20 years and previously served as the President of Women’s Cycling on the Confederation of African Cycling (CAC). That was until widespread corruption lead to her being forced out of the Zimbabwean Federation, and she subsequently resigned from her position at the CAC.
“It was not the Confederation I had an issue with," Linda says. “It was my Federation that had an issue with me. I was serving as Vice-President at the time and the President had a big ego. The power got to his head. He thought ‘I am a man, therefore I am better than you, therefore what you say holds no water’.
“I resigned because they drew up some allegations against me to try and discredit me. I only care about the athletes, so for me it’s not a personal issue. It was a personal attack but I thought ‘please can we just focus on the athletes’. It was ridiculous.
“I had to get a lawyer involved and the President has now stepped down. I don’t blame the Confederation because they think the Presidents of the Federations honour their rules and regulations. They have a code of ethics and we all sign it, but the people I’m talking about like the former President of my Federation and the Secretary General, they haven’t even read it."
We were first directed towards Linda by Kimberly Coats of Team Africa Rising, an organisation which was originally set up as Team Rwanda in 2006 before changing their name to reflect their growing work on the continent.
Kimberly has been heavily involved in the progress of cycling in Africa since 2009 and has been an integral part of the program that has transformed professional cycling from a foreign concept to the most popular sport in Rwanda.
Team Rwanda have produced two Olympians to date, including two-time flag bearer Adrien Niyonshuti, who had six of his brothers killed in the genocide of 1994. Adrien was the first of now several Rwandan graduates to seal a professional cycling contract, and it was while looking to replicate this success in the women’s ranks that the Africa Rising Women’s Cycling Program was born.
The initial plan for the ARWC was to form a professional women’s cycling team involving Rwandan star Jeanne d’Arc and fellow riders from Eritrea and Ethiopia, but after their efforts laid bare the prejudices and problems involved in such a project – sponsors were few and far between and one Eritrean rider defected while guest racing in America, something Kimberly feared would have happened again – it was clear that they would need a different approach.
“We need to build up," said Kimberly. “We need to get more bikes in more women’s hands. If we are going to have a really strong group of women riding long-term the whole continent needs to grow in cycling. One of our biggest challenges is that cycling is not a culture in Africa."
There was a realisation that the formation of a professional women’s team “might be sacrificing the many for the few" and that they “could be of more value to more women by taking a step back to build the women’s cycling infrastructures".
What that means is educating a continent where bicycles are, in Linda’s words, still considered “a man’s thing", where some believe that a woman can lose her virginity simply by riding a bike, and where women are brought up with the ethos that it is their duty to become a wife, a mother and to clean the home.
"You learn really quickly in Africa that if you don't jump over, go around or blow through the barriers then you might as well just go home."
Even Jeanne d’Arc, the most successful female rider in Rwandan history and one of the best on the continent, still finds her friends and family sceptical of her cycling career. It’s this kind of culture which Kimberly is determined to change.
“It’s hard, because they don’t have that competitive drive in Rwanda. It’s in our psyche as Westerners to be competitive but here not so much.
“Jeanne d’Arc is having a really hard time right now because she has very little self-discipline or motivation and I think she’s being influenced by people that she shouldn’t allow herself to be influenced by.
“We found out this week that Jeanne’s family hasn’t been supportive because she hasn’t made any money in a while because of injury. The second the cash stops the family are saying ‘you shouldn’t have quit school’.
“Rwanda is very much in a culture of following. People ask how genocide could happen here because it’s so peaceful and everybody seems so nice, but there is a mentality of following. I have seen some of these riders follow what was a bad attitude and bad thinking into losing their careers.
"If we focus on the women then the men will come too. If you focus on the men then the women will never get anything."
“I got to thinking about it and it really struck me dealing with all these issues with Jeanne that we needed to work on the grassroots level for women’s cycling. We’re taking a step back so that in the next couple of years we can take a giant step forward."
The problem is that the “culture of chauvinism" is so deep-rooted in the cycling infrastructure in Africa that even such an obviously significant and farsighted project will struggle for funding.
This comes down in large part to the fact that women are not often given positions of power in Africa, and when they are, as in Linda’s case, they often find themselves undermined or overruled.
"Women who are on Federations serve nominal roles such as the secretary or minute-taker," she says. "Positions of importance are all given to the men. In my situation of VP, the SG was a woman, but both of us were completely overruled and not listened to."
A large part of the Africa Rising Women’s Cycling Program will be to put more women, and men passionate about developing women’s cycling, into positions where they can make a change, and enable them to do exactly that.
Until then, Kimberly and Linda will have to fight tooth and nail in order to secure support from Federations who are first and foremost looking out for the men.
“We need the National Federations to have female representation, because right now there are 54 countries and there is not one woman that I know on any one of them," continued Kimberly.
“I had a conversation with the Federation not too long ago and we talked bluntly about Jeanne d’Arc and told them we need to build now and find new women. Their answer was that maybe we should just scrap the program. If I hadn’t been there, as the only woman, fighting for these women, they would just have quit and given all the money to the boys.
“The women are getting none of the money and none of the support because it’s all run by men. If you think about it, it should really be the Confederation of African Cycling [running the ARWC] but they are the same people doing the same thing and not effecting change.
“You learn really quickly in Africa that if you don’t jump over, go around or blow through the barriers, you might as well just go home."
Linda has experienced similar frustrations with funding, and was keen to outline a proposal for the UCI, the governing body for world cycling, moving forward: “The UCI need to make funding available that is only to be used for women’s cycling. This is very easy to do; give each Federation in developing countries money that can only be used once your Federation sends a letter of request for use in women’s cycling. It might be for equipment, to get the rider to a race, to get her coaching or whatever else. If you are just issuing each Federation with ‘X’ amount of money, it’s going to go to the men.
"The co-Vice President of the UCI is a woman Tracey Goudry. She is very pro-women, but doesn't understand Africa, or the challenges we face.
“It’s not in our nature to adapt to a hostile environment."
“We are looking to set up a committee with some structure, as women, and with men who are very influential in this area and support women’s cycling, and I think we need to be a stand-alone committee with some credibility with the UCI.
“That is what we’re going for, but we’ve got to do it respecting all the men’s egos that we are going to squash when we go alone. As soon as we say we want our own stand-alone Federation they are going to say no, because for them to consider us having any form of power over them would be intolerable.
“It’s not in our nature to adapt to a hostile environment."
Linda was particularly frustrated by the lack of effort from national Federations to secure readily available funding from the Olympic Solidarity project, which “has a fund of over $100,000 available for each country. And women’s cycling is right at the top of their priorities second only to athletics."
She sights the two Continental golds, two silvers and singular bronze medal won by young Zimbabwean cyclists in 2015 and laments how Federations hunting instant gratification fail to look to the future.
“They don't see that the progress and the success and the medals will come from the women," she says. “Even to get an African man to the World Championships is almost a non-starter, but women we can get there. Without question."
Both Linda and Kimberly are keen to emphasise that there are some influential men pushing too for the cause. A pro team in South Africa have recently provided funding for two talented Ethiopian women to come out and ride with them, JP van Zyl has been doing good work at the World Cycling Centre Africa and there are numerous instances of individuals on the continent pushing to get women into their teams.
One such example is 23-year-old Togolese road cycling champion Abdou-Raouf Akanga, who founded Kpalimé Cycling Project in Togo in 2012 and has 11 women riders.
"It’s the same thing for female riders on my team. Sometimes they can’t come to training because of domestic work."
“I try to show people that women can also be cyclists and do the same thing we are doing," Abdou-Raouf tells me. “I also go on the local radio and talk about creating a female team, and try to change people’s minds about women on racing bikes being something bad.
“Like everywhere in Africa, women are the busiest in the house. It’s the same thing for female riders on my team. Sometimes they can’t come to training because of domestic work.
“Women also have the right to discover the joy and freedom of cycling. Cycling helps teach lessons of courage and skills that will be useful at school and in normal life. In the long term it will be great to see an all African Female Team competing across the world."
Ultimately, the way to make that happen is to make women’s cycling a priority by installing women in influential positions at the highest level.
Nobody has replaced Linda in her role with the Confederation. ARWC are looking to secure 2-3 spots for women on the committee in 2017. They are looking to work with the UCI to develop women commissaries, coaches and mechanics. They are looking to work with partners and Federations to bring bicycles to school. All the talk is about getting more women involved at organisational level.
Kimberly concludes: “It's identifying all these people and giving them tools and giving them power to make changes on their Federation and find people who will sponsor and donate bikes.
“It’s getting these people involved and then in their respective countries looking at how we can get more women commissaries? How can we get more women coaches? How can we get more women on the National Federations? There's no woman in these Federations so how can these woman succeed – because they're always going to be the last to get anything?
“If we focus on the women then the men will come too. If you focus on the men, then the women will never get anything."