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Two Wheels A Way of Life in Burkina Faso


In Burkina Faso, bicycles, mopeds and motorbikes outnumber cars at least two to one. Bicycles have always been a part of the culture in the poverty stricken country, where people, especially women, need a cheap and reliable method of transportation. Uma Ramiah has more from the busy streets of the capital, Ouagadougou.

All manner of two-wheeled vehicles whizz along the wide streets of Ougadougou, often speeding around the few cars in the roads. Burkina Faso's capital buzzes daily with the sound of motorbikes, mopeds and bicycles.

Burkina Faso Minister of Culture Filippe Savadago says the love of bicycles starts at a young age.

"Everybody in Burkina, the first thing children have to do is to go with bicycles. Our history with bicycles is like some people with horses," he said.

Bicycle and motorbike riding on such a large scale is rare in other parts of West Africa. Crumbling or non-existent roads often deter riders, and some conservative cultures teach women that riding bicycles is reserved for men, says the minister.

But not so in Burkina Faso, where people see bicycles as a natural part of every day life.

In Ouagadougou, crossing a street means looking to the right and left, not for cars but for herds of zooming mopeds.

Savadago says Ouagadougou also takes great pride in its wide, tree-lined avenues that make life easier for cyclists and bikers. Special lanes are marked with bright yellow paint for the multitude of bikes that many people use to navigate the city. Some bike lanes have their own, miniature traffic lights.

Potholes are also rare and every morning at dawn, says the minister, cleaning crews sweep the streets to remove trash that could be dangerous to cyclers.

Savadago says the pervasive culture of bicycles in Burkina also has a lot to do with attitude.

"I think that if you stay in Burkina, you will discover one thing: the humility of our people. We think that we have to count on our real and specific power. We do not have to say, 'Okay, I have my car, I want to show that I am more than what I am,'" he said.

Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world, according to the United Nations, and has been hit hard by the wave of globally rising food costs.

In March and again in mid-May, protestors took to the streets in Ouagadougou, angry about the rising cost of living.

Standing amongst rows of colorful motorbikes waiting for repair, mechanic Belima Adama says many Burkinabe cannot afford to eat these days, let alone buy cars. Bicycles and mopeds provide a cheap and immediate alternative.

People here are struggling, says Adama, wiping the spongy seat of an old, orange Yamaha motorbike he has just finished repairing. But they still need to get around.

Motorbikes used to come from France or Japan, but now most are imported from China. Adama says Chinese parts are of lower quality.

Adama says most Chinese bikes need maintenance every three months or so. But there are hundreds of mechanics like him in the country, he says, and their services are inexpensive.

He has been a bike mechanic since 1995. Smiling, he says he has clients everyday, many of them loyal. He says he is lucky motorbikes are so popular in Burkina Faso. Fixing them, he can make enough money to survive.

"Motorbikes are like our taxis," says Eliane Conombo, who works selling sandwiches to students at a local high school.

As she speaks, she leans up against one of the hundreds of bicycles packed like sardines in front of the school building.

"Burkinabe women ride motorbikes even more then men," says Conombo. "Women use motorbikes to carry goods for sale, to go to work and school, and even to transport their children."

On the streets, hundreds of women wrapped in traditional African fabrics, feet often wedged in sparkly high heels, ride motorcycles big and small. Some ride with soundly sleeping babies wrapped with cloth to their backs.

"We can do anything we want with motorbikes," says Conombo. "We can go anywhere."

Conombo says that in a city with few modes of public transportation, women find that riding motorbikes gives them honor and freedom.

The Minister of Culture says Burkina Faso celebrates the sense of possibility bicycles and motorbikes give to women.

"We call them courageous women, and we know that where there are women, we have development. So I think that what bicycles give to our country is like a kind of possibility to do well, to go fast, and to be capable," Filippe Savadago said.

Savadago also says riding motorbikes and bicycles are a way Burkina Faso can contribute to a clean environment, while reducing traffic on the streets.

He says the culture of bicycles in Burkina Faso has brought forward motion to the country.