Syed Saiful Alam
For four hours a week, one section of a residential street in Dhanmondi comes to life with the shouts of playing children. Boys and girls, age five on up, are on bicycles—a few with training wheels, most without. Some are just learning, guided by a helping hand, while others ride confidently on their own, despite the child’s diminutive size. Teenagers join in the ride, and even a few adults come to learn.
One of the trainers leans down and asks a child, “How do you feel about riding a bike?” “I love it!” exclaims the child. “Which would you rather do, play computer games, watch TV, or ride a bike?” “Ride a bike!” “What if Tom and Jerry cartoons were on?” asks the trainer. “Then what would you rather do?”“Ride a bike!” the child repeats.
It is clear from watching the children that this child is not alone in his fascination for cycling. The other kids of all sizes are also happily absorbed.A few official helpers, themselves aged only 12-15, move around the bicycles and clusters of children with authority, ensuring that everyone gets a chance at a bicycle, helping young children learn, and checking that the bikes are in good condition. A sturdy 14-year-old circulates with a pump and tools, fixing the bicycles when they fall into disrepair. Various adults from the neighborhood also gather, mothers to watch their children with anxiety and pride, father and brothers to help with the program, or just to enjoy the evident pleasure of the children.
A CNG baby taxi driver slows to a stop in front of a large sign featuring Einstein and a Bangla slogan, “Cycling is intelligent transport.” Other vehicles slow down as the drivers and passengers stare at this unanticipated sight of children riding in the street, in a lane marked with small signs with messages such as “Let us play” and “Cycle training is going on”.
The program is run by WBB Trust Thursdays and Saturdays from about 3-5 pm (earlier in winter, later in summer) in front of its office on Road 4/A in Dhanmondi. WBB hopes the program will spread, as people see the need to make better use of all the space usually devoted exclusively to traveling and parking.
Ziaur Rahman Litu, who regularly helps with the program, comments, “Rich children have many advantages; they can get basically whatever they want. But for poor children, they may only get one meal a day. They gain no advantages in school, housing, or other areas. We need to do something for them. I can’t help them to eat, but at least when they come to our program, they are enjoying themselves, laughing, forgetting their hunger and other problems. We want to spread this joy throughout the city.”
The mother of a very overweight boy watches with concern as her child struggles to learn, unable to gain his balance due to his unwieldy body. “I know he needs to lose weight, but where can he play? At home he’s always in front of the TV,” she explains. As her son gains confidence and slowly begins to gain balance, she herself gets onto a bicycle, riding for the first time in years. Though she falls several times and rips her salwar, she is laughing with joy. Soon she sails past her son, shouting to him, “Look at your mother!”A 10-year-old girl is riding for the first time, and slowly gains confidence, only to crash into the footpath and fall over. Her mother runs anxiously over, and someone pulls out a bottle of Savlon. The girl grins, waving everyone away, and gets right back onto the bicycle. Some parents may never have seen this aspect of their children, or perhaps only on a visit to the countryside, where their children run eagerly, climb trees, and forget to whimper or complain over minor pains.
Another mother tells us that her daughter is usually silent, and never mixes with others. But when she saw that children are riding on the street, she suddenly became excited and begged her mother to take her to the class. This child, reluctant to talk to others, who has no friends, suddenly is struggling with persistence to learn, and euphoria breaks across her face as she pedals away from her trainer and rides free for the first time.
Advantages for participants include not only the chance to learn to ride a bike, or to practice the skill, or to enjoy outdoor play, but the confidence of the child helpers in carrying out their job, and the opportunity for rich and poor to mix in a safe setting. For guardians and the others who congregate on the footpaths, this is an opportunity for recreation simply in watching others, laughing at the spectacle of grown men stumbling as they learn, and at the pleasure of children.
WBB Trust explains that in a good city, children can safely walk and cycle to school, traffic systems are not all geared towards the convenience of car drivers but allow others to move safely by other means, office workers can transport themselves by bicycle without cost, and parking for cars does not take priority over play space for children.
Children need play spaces, not just in the home but outdoors, where they can move about freely and mix with other children. Relying on playgrounds and fields in the crowded city of Dhaka is no solution. If children are to have any hope of a happy childhood, with full opportunities for development, then we have to consider turning some of our less trafficked streets into playgrounds, at least a few hours a week, so once again our city can ring with the happy shouts of children.
On a Saturday afternoon, as the street again fills with children and bikes, other children are playing in the only space available for them—the roof of their luxury apartment building. As they toss a ball to each other, the ball frequently falls down on the street, amongst the cyclists. The players congregate on the roof and stare down at the children, perhaps wondering when they, too, will be able to make the street their playground.
syed saiful alam