New Internationalist

Women on wheels raise money for adivasi human rights

Go Mad cyclists [Related Image]
© Varsha Y/Go Mad

Two years ago, I wrote about the annual Go MAD (Make a Difference) cycle trip from Bangalore to Gudalur, to raise money for adivasi human rights and education work in the Nilgiris, South India. This year, too, the Go MAD cycle trip was successful. Interestingly, there were a lot more women this year, though not by design: 12 women and seven men. A particularly happy coincidence, since the trip was flagged off on 6 March and the group cycled through 8 March, inadvertently doing something really special on International Women’s Day.

It was also the first time a Gudalur adivasi girl, Nisha, was cycling. She had got on a bicycle for the very first time just one week before the trip. On Day One, she was trailing far behind. But thanks to Pranav, a nine-year-old cyclist, she had company. Pranav’s parents patiently kept to the same pace, so the four of them cycled together. Nisha was clueless about gears. But on Day Two, Varsha, an expert cyclist and truly lovely young woman, rode beside Nisha, teaching her to handle the gears. After that, there was no stopping her. She kept perfect pace with the group the rest of the way.

Everyone was proud of her determination and gave her a rousing ovation each evening for another day brilliantly done. When the cyclists reached the finishing line in Gudalur, the reception team cheered them in with much fanfare. Lakshmi, a senior adivasi nurse, said: ‘When the cycle trip was announced at the monthly all-team meeting, I thought to myself, “how come, though, we have more women in the team than men? Every year it’s only the men who cycle…” I realized it was because [women] did not know how to cycle and I never imagined we could learn. Then Nisha volunteered and learnt to cycle in a week, and what’s more, she cycled the whole distance from Bangalore. She is an inspiration for all of us women. Next year perhaps many more of us will cycle!’

The heart-warming tribute was echoed by many others. Nisha herself said: ‘When the idea came up, I impulsively said okay, I’ll do it. Then I thought, “am I mad? I don’t know anything about cycling!” But Nishita and Priya, two women colleagues, gave me courage and taught me to ride. First to balance, and then slowly they gave me courage to cycle on a main road with autorickshaws and buses speeding by. I gained in confidence gradually, but I didn’t learn how to use the gears. On the second day Varsha taught me, and then it was easy. I want to cycle next year, also!’ 

The fact that this year’s ride was unique – that there were far more women than men – both as cyclists and in the support team, gave the whole ride a very different flavour. The group was more connected, everyone was happier and more chilled out. No-one could quite explain why. Nishita, the key organizer, says: ‘In the debrief, everyone said, “Cyclists and support team really looked out for each other; everyone was so helpful.’ Krishna Panyam, who is a veteran cyclist and regular Go Mad groupie laughed, ‘Well, I’m not offering anything profound, but there was definitely a difference. There were women in the front, women behind and in the centre. Everywhere you looked. Someone even has pictures of women in the trees. A pretty unique trip, I would say.’ As someone else put it, ‘You GO girls! Proud of you!’

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  1. #1 ludwig pesch 17 Mar 14

    Great idea to assign the bicycle its deserved place again in civilized society. What other invention has kept more people fit by simply moving about on their own muscle power? And with the money saved on motorized transport, buying healthier food for added value. Here another added value is bonding, impossible to measure except perhaps in terms of Bhutan's happiness-currency.
    Of course, this is easy to say in Amsterdam where cycling is normal practice. Hats off for daring to do this in India where reckless car and lorry driving is the norm; and given Gudalur's hilly terrain, the task is even more daunting. All participants deserve an extra applause for their courage and stamina while promoting a great cause.
    And yes: one needs to be brave – men and women alike – even where the ’cycling life’ was the normal one not so long ago. Sadly it vanished from most of India's cities as an option for commuters.
    Fortunately it is returning in the west in a big way (Paris and London catching up in a big way, even if it's a desperate move to avoid the total collapse of public health and traffic).
    If emulating western trends ever made sense then, may this one be the mother of all trendsetters in India, and a lasting one!
    Cleaner air and overall happier people will be the reward, be it for residents or visitors.
    I personally look forward to seeing it happen, and cycle all over India again!
    Carry on the good work and keep us informed, thanks Mari!

  2. #2 david cohen 17 Mar 14

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara reports an inspiring story of women cycling
    on a fundraising trip to adivasi human rights led by more women cycling than men, including an adivasi woman learning to cycle who was taught by people who care..

    What an inspiring story. It reminds me of when I first went to Bangladesh to work with social justice NGOs over 20 years ago.

    There I learned what happened in rural areas when women were taught to drive motorcycles and motor scooters. Women by learning to drive those motorized vehicles empowered themselves and set an important example.

    They went around the villages doing public health work including teaching women about birth control methods and other public health actions including inoculation and the importance of washing hands.

    One other item. The cycling trip represents an important example of human rights fund raising by civi society organizations. As India gets wealthier, even if not always fairly distributed, civil society has a responsibility to find creative ways to enable people to participate financially. The cycling trip provides a superb example.

    David Cohen
    Washington DC
    March 17, 2014

    David Cohen,
    Senior Advisor, Civic Ventures
    Senior Congressional Fellow,
    Council for a Livable World

  3. #3 Mark Fernandes 17 Mar 14

    I hope GO MAD goes from strength to strength....its these small initiatives which may inspire the society to take notice!

  4. #4 Merlyn Brito 17 Mar 14

    Hi Marie,
    Thanks for your heart warming article which shows us that nothing is impossible for women! All they need is motivation & wheels!
    More power to women everywhere - we can still change the world!
    Keep writing because without you we would not be aware of these momentuous happenings.

  5. #5 Josette Kersters 17 Mar 14

    Thanks for this Great News!
    Women's Power - may it be contagious and teach a lesson to those who need it.

  6. #6 Chandrika Sen Sharma 17 Mar 14

    Yeah Mari - there's nothing women can't do if they set their mind to it!

  7. #7 Stan 17 Mar 14

    Another barrier removed. Another bastion conquered. Nisha leads the way as women march on ( or should I say cycle on) for their rightful place in society. A place denied to them in the name of culture, tradition, even religion - and the justification that ’this is how its always been’.

    But one young woman, shy of 20, picked up the gauntlet and proved that nothing is impossible. I must confess when I posed the challenge to the adivasi women of our team in Gudalur - that we would raise funds for any women who wanted to cycle - I felt there would be no takers. But when Nisha and her companion Vasantha volunteered I wondered if it was really possible. When the cycle for them to learn and practice on arrived only a couple of weeks before the cycle ride I didn't wonder any more - I was convinced it was impossible. But I hadn't taken into account Nisha and her ’ne'er say die attitude’ and she happily proved me and many others wrong.

    I asked her what helped to achieve this. Her answer was immediate - ’everyone felt I could do it and supported me even when I felt I could not’. Indeed this was very significant and speaks volumes for adivasi society. None of the men were threatened by Nisha wanting to cycle and were in fact proud. NO one laughed or mocked. Doubted maybe as I did too. But resisted or belittled - no!

    There are some lessons lurking in this simple but courageous act on the part of a young adivasi woman. And her society.

    She did herself proud. She did her community proud. She did us all proud.

    What was meant to be a simple fund raising event for adivasi rights turned out to be an assertion of women's rights. And serendipitously women's day came slap bang in the middle of the ride. Thanks to Mari for capturing this element and bringing it to everyone's notice.

    A final word:
    Vasantha who could not learn in time as there was only one cycle between the two of them has already signed up for the next ride and has started learning. Three other adivasi women have asked for cycles to learn and cycle next time. Many more may join if we can organise th cycles for them. WAY TO GO - Go-Make a Difference.

    Thanks Nisha. May your tribe increase

  8. #8 Stan 17 Mar 14

    At the reception by ACCORD and the Adivasi Munnetra Sangam for the cyclists at Gudalur, the adivasis, one after another said it was not just about the money, the fund raising - it was about relationships and a sense of community. Some snippets from the gathering and other conversations:

    ’I think it is easy to give money - anyone can. But to put in the effort you all have - of cycling 300 kms - that is not easy’.

    ’Money is needed but it is not everything. Relationships between people are. Because of what you did We feel you are part of our family’.

    ’ That people from the cities and adivasis and this year an adivasi girl can cycle together to raise money for adivasi rights gives us a lot of hope and strength’.

    ’we have done this (the cycle ride) 4 times before. But what made this special was that there were so many women and even an adivasi woman’.

    ’when we first spoke of organising a cycle ride to raise money for our work I thought it was a mad idea. Who will want to not only raise and pay money but also cycle 300 kms! But after four years I feel this is a wonderful idea - every year more and more people hear about our work and we get to know them and they become our friends’.

    ’Society can change and become a just society only when all people become friends. This is one way - we must do more things like this so more people can become our friends’.

    One small pedal push - and a whole new world opens up.

  9. #9 Elizabeth Thomas 17 Mar 14

    That was really great participation by both women and men. CHEERS

  10. #10 Esi Dadzie 17 Mar 14

    Well I am inspired to not give up on learning to ride a bike because originally I never wanted any more scrapes too common running around in the playground - yes that is a history for school children currently in primary school. Then another time just as I was leaving the cocoon of university life...

  11. #11 sarah 02 Apr 14

    I would love to take part one year???
    Do you take riders in their 50s??
    I support the lives of the Adivasi as I give talks in many schools in the UK about their story.

  12. #12 Katy Proctor 10 Apr 14

    Amazing to hear how what started as a simple fundraising project has resulted in bringing people together and broadening women's aspirations in this way. Nisha's comments are inspiring because she recognises that what could be narrowly seen as a personal physical achievement was actually made possible thanks to the support of a much wider team of people, celebrated by an even wider community, and therefore something much more important and powerful. Thank you for sharing Mari.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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