Amanda Ngabirano, the Urban Planner advocating for more Ugandans to cycle

On August 23rd 2019, Ugandan Urban Planner and Lecturer at Makerere University, Amanda Ngabirano using her personal twitter handle @mandyug tweeted;

The accompanying picture was that of Amanda in an all blue, lovely ensemble; a perfect representation of an African urban female, cycling on a street in Kampala. Amanda’s bold choice of riding a bicycle through her city, often assumed in Africa to be a poor man’s way of getting around, attracted quite a bit of attention. Her tweet garnered 1,400+ retweets and well over 8,000 likes. Many of the comments were positive and in approval of bicycle riding as an alternative mode of transportation in African cities.

In East Africa, a sign of having made it in life is by owning a car or several. For Amanda, posting that picture of herself atop a bicycle, a misguided representation of one’s poverty, was not only for publicity, but to pass a strong message that bicycles can indeed be considered by the rich, middle-class and poor in society, as a hassle-free and environmentally friendly way of moving from one place to another. The only thing the planning authorities of African towns and cities needed to consider is providing safe and orderly riding spaces for the masses.

The African Forces for Change category on Meghanpedia, is inspired by the September 2019, British Vogue Issue, Forces for Change, guest-edited by HRH, The Duchess of Sussex, Meghan. This category will focus on Africans based in the African continent, institutions and foundations with an African origin whose main focus is to empower, nurture and make a positive change in their respective societies.

For our first African Forces for Change feature, I interviewed Amanda Ngabirano to get to know better why she enjoys cycling so much and now actively advocates for more Ugandans to cycle; a cause which has since earned her the nickname, ‘Madam Bicycle’. The following is a transcript of our conversation.”

Hi Amanda AKA Madam Bicycle, welcome to Meghanpedia: African Forces for Change! It’s such a pleasure to interview you. Our readers would like to know more about you. Could you kindly introduce yourself? Who is Amanda Ngabirano?
Hi Lorna, Amanda Ngabirano is an Urban Planner, a passionate one at that. I am a Lecturer at Makerere University. I love sharing knowledge. I was born in a family of twelve. People always ask; “Same father, same mother?” And the answer is yes; 6 girls and 6 boys. I am married, and have two children, a daughter and a son. I am a liberated soul. I hate ‘walls’. I hate social injustice. I love to see a United Africa, growing and developing smartly, and avoiding some silly mistakes. I get angry about some things that we see going wrong and we choose not to take action until they get out of hand. I hate our spatial disorder and inequity, especially when it comes to mobility planning. To me, mobility is everything.

What inspired you to avidly take up cycling while advocating for it as well?
I was lucky to be exposed, and that my mind was open to learn. I studied in The Netherlands where bicycles are just part of their lives and culture. I realized there was a big potential for Africa to take this up seriously and plan for it especially because of its health and economic benefits. I didn’t know how to ride of course because as a girl, my mother prevented me from learning. She said girls weren’t expected to ride because they would lose their virginity. As a grown up woman in Kampala, I also thought it was a poor person’s mode. So I absolutely had nothing to do with bicycles until I got to the Netherlands and I got a real cultural shock. The rich, the poor, men and women, boys and girls were riding bicycles and it was very normal. The infrastructure was super good. That makes a huge difference in defining the status and cycling in urban planning.

“Africa is sleeping. This is a very big opportunity we haven’t tapped into. I will do whatever I can to change the mindset about the bicycle in my country and my continent.” This is what I said to myself. And this is my journey.

On your website, you state “My passion for orderly development has brought me closer to my environment…” In what ways has it?
I see so much going wrong, spatially, in Africa. Most of our cities developed in an uncoordinated and unplanned manner. And yet these are the real centers of hope for so many years to come. In terms of mobility, the disorder is real. Africa is on the move, planning for our space and mobility options should be prioritized now. Everyone is in the same road space, but some of us insist that we have no space. When I talk about bicycle transport and provision of safe infrastructure, I am often told that our roads are narrow. The roads aren’t as narrow as our minds – our mindset. It is also simply disorder, since the space takes up all of us on the road, but in conflict. I would like to see my brothers and sisters in Africa, especially those involved in the city planning process, opening up their eyes and planning appropriately – and for all.

“Africa is sleeping. This is a very big opportunity we haven’t tapped into. I will do whatever I can to change the mindset about the bicycle in my country and my continent.”

During my 2017 visit to Uganda and specifically Kampala and Entebbe, I noticed the very high number of boda boda motorcycles as a preferred mode of transport. In your quest to get more Ugandans to ride bicycles, have you encountered any form of resistance especially from the taxi and boda boda operators, who may feel as if you are intent on pushing them out of business?
No, they haven’t been hostile in anyway, since they are part of the chaos. When I am riding, I am part of it too. More resistance is from those who wish to ride, but because of safety concerns, they hate my advocacy – as it comes down to wishing more Ugandans dying on our roads. I don’t blame them.

There is a lot of Climate Change conversation currently taking place on a global scale with an increasing number of teenage and children activists, a notable one, Swedish Greta Thunberg, boldly taking up the conversation. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex equally identify themselves as environmentalists while engaging in causes supporting the same. Do you feel that bicycles can be the future of Africa especially as an alternative mode of transportation within major cities, while cutting down on carbon emissions? Can that be achievable in your opinion?
This is indeed a great opportunity that Africa should not let go of. We can even forget about the climate change aspect for a moment and focus on the economic and social benefits. We can see how much money and time we lose in the traffic congestion in our fast growing cities. This is a direct impact. We can see how wide the gap between the rich and the poor is getting. Such modes as bicycle transport and public transport would bridge the gap between the different socio-economic classes. And such modes aren’t prioritized, yet. This is sad!

You successfully coordinated the first ever Car Free day in Kampala and encourage cycling for fun activities at Makerere University where you lecture. How has the experience been and is the public receptive?
With my team, we have successfully held and organized about four car free days in Kampala and outside Kampala (in a town called Soroti, in Eastern Uganda), as part of the process of changing mindsets about active mobility: walking and cycling. It was aimed at media publicity in order to send a message to the planning authorities regarding planning for safe infrastructure. His Worship, the City Lord Mayor, Erias Lukwago, was our chief guest in 2011. And I can confirm that he is in support of the ongoing cycling planning projects in Kampala. The general public is asking for such more days. That means they would like to be enabled to do it, as part of the city mobility system. They don’t hate cycling. They hate that it’s unsafe to ride. Some hate to see me ride. When they complain about my dress, the risk that my handbag could be stolen, and lack of a helmet, it’s actually about lack of safety on the road and in the city. But I wish they joined sooner than later – numbers matter. Next step is to see our politicians taking the lead, because mobility is about everyone.

“Such modes as bicycle transport and public transport would bridge the gap between the different socio-economic classes.”

If on a fine Saturday afternoon, Amanda would like to go on a leisurely bicycle ride within Kampala, which route is she most likely to take and why?
I love to ride where there are trees and greenery, generally, like along Yusuf Lule Road. I connect with nature. I also love to ride in somewhat busy areas because I feel safer in case of any accident, since the speeds are low and the chaos is real and well known to all road users. I also connect with people-like the boda boda riders, some motorists, my fellow bicycle riders as well as pedestrians. And that’s what a city should be like , connecting people, and safety. I love Kampala Road. It’s where life is; you know which life I am talking about, right? Kampala Road should actually have a cool bicycle and bus lane or tram line and nothing for cars!

Thank you Amanda, for giving me this opportunity to interview you as an African Force for Change, which you truly are! To keep up with Amanda’s advocacy efforts for bicycle riding, follow her on twitter @mandyug

Article courtesy of Meghanpedia, copyright photo: Amanda Ngabirano

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