A biking chance: Indian peacekeepers teach girls in the Malakal protection site to ride bicycles
The United Nations mission in South Sudan’s protection site in Malakal comes alive every Saturday morning these days.
At a field ideally located next to the youth center, there is squealing and laughter all around as a group of girls, mostly in their teens, wobble around on bicycles trying to find and keep their balance. They remain undeterred by the large numbers of curious onlookers.
Among the younger flock however, one individual stands out. An older woman. She seems even more focused, indulged and determined.
Nyanchangiwok Amum works in the Malakal field hospital during the day and spends her evenings teaching English and life know-how – hygiene, the dangers of alcohol, advising against early marriage - to teenage girls, most of whom have dropped out of school. In South Sudan, 45 per cent of girls will leave school and be married before they reach 18 years of age.
“I am here because I want them to see me taking control of my life by learning new skills and not giving up,” she says, “If I shy away, then they will not have the confidence that I am trying to instill in them.”
Amum and the rest of the girls are being taught how to ride a bike by a team of medical staff from the Indian field hospital and a few other volunteers. Lieutenant Colonel Srinivas Gokulnath, a doctor, and his team of medics from the Indian field hospital and other volunteers.
“I love cycling and so I thought of teaching some girls from the protection site how to ride because they walk for incredibly long distances,” says Lieutenant Colonel Srinivas Gokulnath, one of the instructors. “I had hoped for about ten girls but 52 showed up for the first lesson. And there I was with only three bikes – which I had borrowed!”
The situation quickly became untenable. Urged on by his commanding officer and colleagues, Srinivas Gokulnath announced an ambitious project: he would run for twelve hours to raise money from well-wishing colleagues and friends to buy twelve bicycles and helmets for the girls.
Two weeks ago, words of encouragement were spoken by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan’s Head of its field office in Malakal, Hazel Dewet, as she flagged off the more than fifty enthusiastic runners, who had spent their days planning meticulously for the grueling test of endurance.
At exactly six o’clock that evening they set out on their first of many, many laps around the peacekeeping mission’s base, backed by the cheering of a large crowd. Every twenty minutes or so, they would receive a new dose of encouraging shouts at the starting point, where everyone had gathered initially.
But with every completed lap, both the number of runners and supporting onlookers would decrease. After some hours of hard work, it became clear that the last bit would be a solo run. Doctor Gokulnath was the one determined athlete. New bikes secured or not, he had a self-assigned task to complete, his honour to preserve.
As midnight approached, the cheering was left to those with little choice but to ensure the wellbeing of their colleague: the medical staff of the field hospital. In the wee hours, in between the inevitable yawns, the heroic, sleep-defying supporting crew would provide the lone runner with water, keep track of time and distance and make sure that he had company at every step he took.
“We planned it so that he wouldn’t run alone at any point. Soldiers from our battalion and others joined him at different points during the night to help keep him going, and our medical officers were there for the whole night to monitor the run,” says Colonel Sudheer, commanding officer of the Indian field hospital.
As the support team announced the final lap the excitement was palpable! At six o’clock on a Saturday morning, the UN base was a hub of excitement rather than the kind of snoring ghost town one would have expected.
And yes, Srinivas Gokulnath made it. For all we know, had he not been stopped he may still have been running, perhaps racking up 52 hours (and maybe an equivalent number of bicycles) instead of twelve.
After a largely sleepless night, there were no cycling classes on the agenda on that particular Saturday. But a week later, back in the protection site, the reward for the collectively accomplished running achievement was there for all to see: a dozen of brand new bikes and helmets.
And the girls at Malakal’s protection site? They are still squealing and laughing and learning as they perform their weekly brave balancing acts on their two-wheeled iron horses.