One of the most equally nerve-wracking and exciting parts of the trip was the meeting with a ladies group in Songea town. These ladies had been asked to gather together at an allotted hour in a café bar in a quiet suburb of town, which in Songean style means that, amongst the tropical trees, shrubs and greenery, a cleared square of hard baked, dusty earth punctuated with one or two rather wobbly Castle Beer branded plastic tables and chairs, all in the same shade of long faded red. By the time I arrived at the scene, this ordinarily dull and relatively abandoned watering hole had transformed into a chattering riot of colour and laughter, as 30 or so mamas in all styles of Katenge tailored dress had gathered together to see what the strange motorcycling Mzungu dada had to say.
I was duly introduced in Swahili as "Dada Crala" (Claire is universally impossible to pronounce, with Clara being theoretically easier, but for some reason I've not yet worked out yet, "r"s and "l"s seem to be broadly indistinguishable in that language, hence this rather ugly name! The "Dada" part means "sister".). It was explained that I had done a big motorcycle trip from London to South Africa on my own, prompting an array of reactions, ranging from gasps and murmurs to whoops and applause from these ladies, then I had the chance to introduce my idea. Namely to train the bodaboda riders, as well as the ladies, in essential motorcycle maintenance, then work with the ladies to set up a "fundi" (tradesman) workshop, run and operated by them, offering high quality maintenance provision as a social enterprise business. But most importantly, I told them that I really wanted was to know their thoughts on the idea and any concerns or feedback at all that they might have for me. I was there to listen.
I then stopped and looked around rather nervously at these ladies, who were staring back at me with the most inscrutable poker faces. At that moment, I remember so clearly just thinking to myself "Claire, there's no way these ladies will want to become maintenance experts or do anything even vaguely bike related, greasy or unladylike. There's no precedent for this in any form. You have totally misread this situation and made a huge assumption. Its going to be a firm no. Elsdon, prepare to crash and burn". I gulped. There was a pause then a bit more discussion amongst the ladies. Then one stood up. I took a deep breath in as she prepared to speak.
"We are tired of being driven by these men who drive too fast and very carelessly and often rob us when they take us to their villages. What we want to know is, why can't you train us to be bodaboda riders instead? We'd all much prefer to be ridden by a woman and it would be a great business. And it must be possible, after all, you've ridden a motorcycle all that way. Why don't you teach us?". There was much nodding as this was translated into English for me. I was stunned and amazed to hear this but completely thrilled. So much so, that I even did my incurably uncool double arm punch in the air thing that I seem to do entirely involuntarily whenever excited by something unexpectedly brilliant. The ladies, quite rightly, all burst out laughing.
"Fantastic!" I said, cracking up into a big grin and then laughing too . "Brilliant, why not? You want to become boda-boda riders? Of course you can! That's a great idea!" I replied, nodding vigorously with the idea already taking shape in my mind of how this could work and what it could enable. Then a little tentatively, I added, "And what do you think of the fundi idea?". "Yes of course!" one voice went up in a charming English, with all the ladies nodding along encouragingly this time. More words were now spoken in Swahili. I waited as this too was translated. Denis leaned over. "They say, of course, this will be a very good idea. There is nothing else like it in all the town and all the riders will come. It will work. Please help us begin." What a start.
At this point I was overwhelmed with gratitude for these ladies that they had taken the time to share their thoughts with me and trusted me enough to listen. But they weren't finished yet. "We have another question", they said. "What we want to know is - who will be running this project every day and making sure that everything is as it should be? If it is you, then yes, we want to do this. If it is someone else, maybe some man. Then no."
What a message. It was at this point that I realised that if I am going to set this thing up and give women such as these a chance, I'll need to be living there full time. And it feels right!