In Amsterdam, it might seem like everyone knows how to ride a bike – but that’s not quite true. For residents who grew up in other countries, the skill of balancing on two wheels is not a given.
That’s what Agartha Frimpong, 62, realized when she emigrated from Ghana to the Netherlands in 1984. She waited more than two decades to learn to ride a bike, and once she did, she became a proselytizer. Today, she runs a free cycling class for women in southeast Amsterdam, an area popular with immigrants. Many of her students come from countries where women riding bikes is seen as taboo – now being able to just hop on a bike allows them a freedom and independence they’ve never known.
Since starting the program in 2009, Frimpong, nicknamed “Mama Agatha” by her students, has taught more than 1,700 women how to ride a bike and now runs six classes a week.
Women & Girls talked with Frimpong about speaking with smiles and helping women conquer their fears.
Women & Girls: What inspired you to start teaching women how to bike?
Agartha Frimpong: Back in 2009, in Amsterdam, a Ghanaian lady I knew died of a heart attack. At her funeral, a few us began talking about how, in the Ghanaian community, people didn’t exercise much. One of the men who came to the funeral worked at city hall, and we noticed he had come on his bike. So we said, hey, we should learn how to bike, too – that would be good for our health.
So later, I went to city hall to apply for funding. They helped me buy my first six bikes. I put together a group of 23 women, and hired people to teach us. It was hard at first. But those of us who stuck with it were so happy the first time we managed to ride our bikes by ourselves. It gave us such a feeling of freedom!
I decided I had to teach this skill to other women. The first year, it was difficult – I spent my own money and borrowed from friends to pay for the rental of a gymnasium. I didn’t realize I could ask for more help. But then some local activists saw what we were doing, and helped us apply for more funding from city hall.
Women & Girls: How does the course work?
Frimpong: The course lasts 12 weeks. Teaching adults is not like teaching children – most of the women are very scared. So I or one of my volunteers hold them up on their bike, and we go around in circles for a long time.
We talk about their fears, and explain all the benefits that they’ll get from sticking with the course – like being healthy, saving money on transportation, being able to ride bikes with their kids to take them to school, and so on. Biking means independence. And then of course, I tell them, when you’re in Rome, do what the Romans do. Well, here, it’s the Dutch – and they all ride bikes. So learning to ride bikes makes the women feel like they belong here.
Women & Girls: Where do your students come from?
Frimpong: They come from Morocco, Pakistan, Surinam, India, Nigeria, Ghana, Somalia, Ethiopia, Syria, Iraq … and more! Some have just arrived in the Netherlands; others have been here for years.
They don’t always speak English or Dutch, but it’s no problem – we mostly communicate with our hands and with our smiles, and if needed, we find someone else from their country to help translate. A lot of women tell me that back in their home countries, as women, they were not allowed to ride bikes.
Women & Girls: What is it like the first time they ride a bike on their own?
Frimpong: You just see this huge smile on their face. Usually they are so happy that they start yelling!
Once they can ride on their own, we take them out into the street so they can learn to navigate traffic and other cyclists. At the end of the course, we give them each a bicycle to keep. So I often see former students riding in the streets of Amsterdam. They yell out, “Mama Agatha!” and it makes me so happy.
I think it’s so important for immigrants to know that they are not alone, and for them to go out and meet people rather than sit at home and watch TV. Even if you don’t have much education, like me, it’s important to do something with your life. That’s why I’ve also started another class to teach women how to sew.