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STRONG WOMEN ON WHEELS ACCELERATE CHANGE

The fearless female riders of MJ Piki drive through any obstacles in their way

By Sakina Nanabhai

mj-piki-on-bikes-smiles
Swahili English

Most bike shops give off strong odors of grease and motor oil.

They’re grungy, weathered, and often a bit cluttered. Together, these elements reflect the stereotypically masculine nature of the industry. 

But that is not the case at the MJ Piki workshop. Its cleanliness and organization caught me by surprise. Five spotless, dark blue Honda motorbikes neatly lined the back wall, which boasted a massive company logo. And the riders who greeted me upon my arrival were not gruff men, but cheerful women.

Catherine, whose bike appeared to swallow her petite stature, ran towards me with her hand outstretched. “Hello, hello, hello!”, she sang. Rosemary, Jackline, and Spesioza welcomed me from the other end of the room, and I dragged a chair over to join their conversation. And after a brief delay, Claire, their fearless leader and the founder of MJ Piki, breezed into the shop and sat down to share her story—how MJ Piki, which stands for Mwanaamke Jasiri ya Piki (Strong Women with Motorbikes), came to be.

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The nonprofit’s name speaks to the bold nature of its mission. Whereas the exclusion of women is common across other companies in Tanzania, MJ Piki specifically targets that demographic. They don’t just train anybody to be a bodaboda (motorbike transport) rider; they focus on training women. In doing so, they empower them to take the wheel and accelerate towards their dreams.

“I always wanted to do something different. I am glad I got the chance to be a part of MJ Piki, and show that there is nothing that women cannot do,” Catherine said, thinking back to the beginning of her journey with MJ Piki. In pursuing this more unconventional goal, they’ve indirectly inspired others as well. Rosemary added, “My parents were scared I might get into an accident, or something bad may happen. But now that they have seen me ride the bikes, they are all very excited and supportive.”

Claire never could have guessed that a crazy dream she followed five years ago would change the lives of women today. The idea sparked out of a personal pilgrimage, when “I spent a year riding a motorbike from London to Cape Town,” she recalled. “Sometimes it was a lot of going on off-road routes and just finding a path.” During this time, she made sure to carefully monitor the maintenance of her bike, since “that was the only thing I could do to make myself safe while on my route.”

Claire-with-mj-piki

Her journey eventually brought her to Malawi, where she decided to volunteer with an organization that needed motorbike maintenance and support. “They had 80 motorbikes, [which] were essential to their work,” she said. “They were always breaking down. The reason was not having enough maintenance, so I started training them and creating awareness about how better maintenance of your vehicles could mean better road safety as well.” Claire’s guidance proved helpful, so she felt motivated to start up a similar practice once she put down roots in Tanzania.

Her team’s vision steadily expanded after they were asked to renovate 2 out of 400 motorbike ambulances in Sengerema. During that time, Claire realized that there was an untapped opportunity to train women to ride the bikes and run the service, “which is how these women came to join,” she said, referring to the ladies by her side. 

“I feel women here are very hardworking, and they have been doing a lot to support their families. Women who do their catering business or tailoring business, while taking care of their children and everything else on the side.” She smiled with pride, acknowledging the other girls. “But, I also met women who said, ‘You know, if I got a chance to ride a motorcycle, I would love to do it and do something different.’ I thought, it would be nice to offer these opportunities to women and see if any woman would be genuinely interested.” 

That idea opened up a world of opportunity, both for MJ Piki and the women they serve. Today, the organization aims to support a number of groups that seek to run their own motorbike ambulance businesses, “in particular, to help women in labor,” Claire added. “The maternal mortality rate in Tanzania is very high, and the major reason is because many women cannot get to the hospital.” 

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However, the current projects that MJ Piki is working on is creating a means of bread and butter for these women, by training them to become the first ever female bodaboda riders in Africa. 

Speaking about their future goals of starting motorbike ambulance services in Tanzania, Claire believes mothers in the region will have a greater chance at delivering their babies without any added complication. It will be a tangible benefit that will be especially meaningful to Claire, who has a little boy of her own. When he began to cry towards the end of our conversation, she reached into the carrier next to her. “Meet the smallest member of MJ Piki, Mr. Benjamin,” she laughed, pulling him close to her chest. 

Even though motherhood demands its fair share of time and energy, Claire does not plan to scale back on her work with MJ Piki anytime soon. Nor do Catherine, Rosemary, and Jackline, who want to build upon the organization’s momentum and inspire other women like them.

“It is sometimes a challenge when people comment knowing that you are a woman. Many people tell me, ‘Utagonga (You will fall),’” Catherine said.  

And it’s true. Collectively, they have fallen more times than they can count. “But since I loved the job and was passionate about it, I kept trying until I could master it,” Rosemary added. 

They’ve tried, and fallen, and scraped their knees on the ground. But when people tell them to stay down, they stand up. They brush the dirt from their clothes, and wipe away the grease from their hands. And against all odds, they ride off towards the horizon.

 

 

About the author

sakinakavi@yahoo.com

Sakina Nanabhai:

Hey there! This is Sakina. I am a full-time mommy and a freelance journalist. I spend most of my days pampering and absolutely spoiling my little toddler girl, Lubaina. (Remember the name because I talk a lot about her). Once she is off to bed, I spend my nights hammering down my laptop keys, and writing articles. I love interviewing and meeting new people. Having interviewed Tanzanian multi-millionaires, fashion designers, models, artists and a lot of famous personalities in the past, with Dreamlink I wish to reach out to the 'ordinary' women of Tanzania with extraordinary stories of courage and perseverance. Dreamlink came across as a dream-come-true opportunity to work with like-minded people with crazy ideas and ambitions, and who dare to make their dreams come true, by daring to dream! Happy to connect with you to know about your dreams that don’t let you sleep at night.

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