“Dreams can come true”: the first Ugandan professional cyclist aims for the Tour de France | Global development
It is September and the start of the rainy season in Uganda, when the roads are flooded with clay water. Everyone is slowed down by the incessant showers. Despite these conditions, Florence Nakaggwa, 21, trains in the suburb of Masaka, a town 80 miles southwest of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
She travels between 30 and 60 miles (50 to 100 km) each day, going from the tarmac to the red soil of village roads.
Earlier this year, Nakaggwa became the first female rider from Uganda to receive a professional cycling contract, signing with Team Amani, a racing collective that fiercely lobbies for the inclusion of riders across East Africa. East. Based in the Netherlands, it has sister clubs in Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda.
The team provides him with 900,000 Ugandan shillings (around £200) a month, equipment, clothing and representation at races around the world.
His signing came as a surprise to his home village of Kalagala, where neighbors had derided his ambitions. “People, young and old, were shouting insults like ‘Leave the bikes to the boys or you’ll become a man.’ I tend to ignore them. This is the career I chose – not working in a hair salon, as many in my culture would expect.
But standing on the main street of nearby Ssaza, home to the Masaka Cycling Club and a bike repair shop where Nakaggwa works part-time, she commands respect from onlookers when she has her photo taken, a sign that attitudes can change.
In 2015, a social worker and cycling fan from Masaka called Miiro Michael noticed an increasing number of young boys racing bicycles they would normally use to fetch water or for other household chores.
“I knew I had to bring young people together,” he says, so he started the cycling club, which now has 10 girls and 15 boys.
Its aim is to harness local talent and engage young people in community work.
The continued existence of the club is due to Michael’s commitment and zeal.
“Even being in a wheelchair, contracting poliomyelitis at two, couldn’t stop me from loving the Tour de France on television as a child. I wondered why there had never been any Ugandans participating.
Michael’s chance meeting with Ross Burrage, an Australian ultra-endurance runner who was training around Masaka in 2019, improved the club’s fortunes. As an ambassador and primary fundraiser, he helped build the pavilion which is now filled with donated equipment and frequented by young people who want to compete.
“I was riding with the brothers from Florence and we went to their parents. There was a young girl: it was Florence, who was picking up coal,” says Burrage. “When I asked why she wasn’t riding I only got a blank stare. The next time I came back she was racing against her brothers.
In a society where girls are expected to marry early and take care of men, Florence has created her own feminine culture.
When she started racing competitively in 2019, she became the first woman to join the cycling club. Michael recognized her leadership qualities and made her captain. Since then, nine more girls and women have joined. “I tell the girls where I came from – I tell them not to sit on their talents. You just need to believe that all dreams can come true with hard work,” she says.
“The weakening of girls must be stopped, or at least reduced.” Nakaggwa leads the club’s female members on practice runs in local villages “so they can be seen”.
His father is a member of the club and coach. He was a mountain bike racer, but did not achieve professional status. He is now keen to empower his daughter to help her reach the next level: international competition.
“I’m grateful that he works hard enough for me,” Nakaggwa says. “When you’re on a bike, you’re not a boy or a girl, you’re just a being – and I have to follow everyone in the race, no matter who they are.”
Women’s racing is a relatively new phenomenon; as a result, there are few all-female races in Uganda. Longer off-road mixed treks are more common in Africa and are Nakaggwa’s immediate focus.
After finishing first in the local community races, one of her first challenges on the big stage was the Kintu Trial in western Uganda last year, a challenging five-day 500km mountain bike race, competing with European and African men and women, as well as two local boys from his village.
On the first day, she came in first and was held aloft in amazement by those at the finish line.
His next race is the difficult one rhino race this month, an endurance expedition that begins in South Africa and traverses 1,700 miles (2,750 km) of mountain ranges, forests and towering sand dunes to Namibia. Competitors navigate themselves, carrying all their camping gear and food. Nakaggwa and his two male teammates, Paul Kato and Peter Wasswa, will be the first Ugandans to enter the race.
Completing it will be another first for this young pioneer who is determined to take her place among the greats of cycling. “I have to reach the level of the Tour de France… this is the best place for a professional cyclist to show his tactics and his spirit. If you can do it, you have done it.