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Bicycle Portraits: What Do Bikes Say About A Culture?

I have to admit I was a bit reluctant when I first saw this series of "Bicycle Portraits" because biking has, in some cases, become something of a cliche steeped in hipdom sprinkled with granola. Or mainly: For NPR to present a series of bicycle portraits just seemed too cute, too predictable.

But these photos weren't taken in Brooklyn or Portland; it's South Africa. And in fact, I was surprised to learn from Stan Engelbrecht, who made the portraits with his friend Nic Grobler, that biking is not common there; there's no conversation about the hipsterization of bike culture, because there's not much of a "bike culture" to begin with.

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    Jors Moentsabato: "It helps me a lot, this bicycle of mine. There where I go, I ride my bike. I bought this bike at the shop where they sell old stuff, I found it there."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    Arrie Sokham: "I've had this one for two years and six months. It is not perfect for me but it is all right. It works and brakes. ... I go to work every morning with the bicycle."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    Asher Tafara: "I travel with the bike to get some herbs and medicines on the mountains. I do healing of the people and selling medicines for a living."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    Stephanie Baker: "I'm limited to about a kilometer in view of my age, and I use it, well, certainly every other day. ... If I didn't have the bicycle, well, I'm not very good at walking, I'd be more or less in retirement. At least I can get around and see the beauty of the place, too. This bike suits me; it's quite old now and I'm 82 and three-quarters."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    Brandan Searle: "I work at La Lucia Virgin Active. I'm a fitness manager there. I ride from where we live in North Beach, Durban out to the club every day. It's my mode of transport. I enjoy it. It certainly keeps me five-alive."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    Dirkie Maduo: "I ride to get to work and all that, maybe to the farms — always just to keep busy. ... The bicycle helps me to make money. I really need money."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    Henry Nxumalo: "I was brought here by social workers because of circumstances of life, home problems and so on, so I came here to Cape Town and I found myself on the streets. Things are not going very well actually, but bicycle riding is one of my dreams. ... This bike is called Roro. I named it after my son."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    Tanya Fouche: "I love to cycle, I feel free — like I'm flying. If I'm stuck in traffic I'm so frustrated and it does nothing for me. I also don't like walking, so even if I had to go one block I'd rather cycle. ... It really does something to me, spiritually, personally... whatever."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    Johannes van Wyk with Chris, Danisha and Sarie: "At our home we fix bicycles, and our dad always used to ride and all those type of things, so we also made it a part of us. It is very important to us."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    Matson Matthysin: "I'm coming from work now, on the way home. I cycle every day, for two specific reasons — I want to get more fit, and otherwise, it's just because parking and petrol is so expensive."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    Melusi Ndlovu: "I like to be in competition racing; I feel strong on this bike. I'm going to work now, working as a security guard. I use the bicycle everyday. Bought it from another guy. His employer gave it to him. Now I've had it for two years."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    Vidette Ryan: "I do prefer, even though I have a car, to go by bike. You don't have to look for parking or anything else, you just find a bike stand and tie your bike to it."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    Micky Abrahams: "I ride around on this bike. ... I bought it so I can just go on with life. I'm short of breath — with the bike I can go further. I ride my bike every day. ... I live out on the road. On heaven's road. Out on the bushy ground, along the marsh where the rivers are. And places like that. I sleep out there at night."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    Ryden Allmark: "I have a car, but if I can use the bike, I use the bike. It was my dad's. ... I think he has had it about as long as he's had me; I'm 21. So it's quite an old bike, but he has taken good care of it. ... It saves me time in traveling; it's more convenient."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    "My name is Wilma. I'm 12 years old. I live on Jonkersriver and we really enjoy riding the bicycle. We don't have strong tires and we don't have things to pedal on."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht
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    Zack Waters: "This bike is from America. My dad bought it for me, and it's got an American flag on it down there."
    Courtesy of Stan Engelbrecht

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"Our initial interest was in maybe photographing a few commuters that ride beautiful hand-me-down racers as commuter bikes," Engelbrecht writes via email. "But we soon found that very, very few South Africans actually commute by bicycle. Slowly we became interested in why so few choose ... to ride in a country where it makes such absolute sense to do so."

On its international travel site, the U.S. Department of State advises euphemistically: "Often the safety standards on public transportation systems in South Africa are not on par with what travelers would expect." Engelbrecht puts it more bluntly:

"[We] have no proper public transport infrastructure, and that which does exist is expensive and unsafe," he writes on his website.

So why not bike? Engelbrecht doesn't offer any conclusive reasons. Perhaps because biking in traffic is unsafe; or because bicycles are often stolen; or because, for many, they are a luxury possession. Regardless of the reason, he's hoping to change it.

"Nic and I both love bicycles," he writes. "But we really believe that it's a simple and affordable tool that can really liberate and empower South Africans. By celebrating the few South Africans who do ride everyday, and telling the stories of their lives, we hope to inspire more people to try out commuting by bicycle."

He says they are currently redesigning the project's website and working on a book. But on the current site, you can click on any one of the portraits and read a biography: David Mamabolo is a 60-year-old gardener who rides to work; Vidette Ryan likes to avoid parking; Brandan Searle is a fitness manager; and Jors Moentsabato puts it simply: "There where I go, I ride my bike."

This is just one of many cultural studies Engelbrecht, who was born a few hours from Cape Town, has done.

Before this, "African Salad" explored the homes and favorite recipes of 60 South African families. And after this, he plans to continue working on what he calls "African Remedy": interviews with elderly South Africans to gather "traditional remedies ... life advice, farmer's home medicines etc.," as he puts it.

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