Interview: Claire Elsdon

In 2012, Claire Elsdon set off on a trip of a lifetime riding the length of Africa from London. Five years later and she’s the mastermind behind Pikilily, a charity based in Tanzania which aims to educate riders in the art of motorcycle maintenance and road safety. Here she tells us all about her vision, and how it came to be…

ABR: In 2012 you set off to ride the length of Africa, you left, what I presume was, a decent job in London, what was the catalyst for the trip?

Claire Elsdon: The job was decent but somehow it just didn’t seem to be leaving me feeling fulfilled on any deeper level, and that bothered me a lot. I had been feeling that way for a while, until my gran said to me one day, “I wish, when I was your age, I’d done the things I’d wanted to do and not the things that others expected me to. I wish I’d been braver”. That was a huge wake-up call for me.

ABR: Did you have any overland motorcycling experience before you left Africa?

CE: Yes and no – I’d done a fair bit of off-roading in Wales, South Africa and Mongolia for example, but that was all in some kind of guided group setting. I’d never even been further under my own steam than the UK on my motorbike before this trip.

ABR: Why the Suzuki DRZ?

CE: It was a mechanically straightforward, reliable, non-glitzy and reasonably lightweight bike (definitely compared to a larger, say, 800cc bike), so I felt that for me, for travelling alone, it was a great choice – simple to fix if anything went wrong (no high-tech computers on-board to complicate matters) and manageable to lift if I dropped it.

ABR: Tell us about your ride through Africa, did it go smoothly?

CE: Some days yes, others less so. I had my fair share of adventures on the way with marauding elephant, extreme terrain and epic heat where I wasn’t sure if I had pushed my luck a little too far. The only reason why I think I made it to Cape Town in one piece was a combination of obsessive maintenance as well as the extraordinary kindness of the strangers I met along the way, who always made sure I was ok.

ABR: As a woman riding solo, did you ever feel unsafe on the roads?

CE: Generally, no. Usually I felt very comfortable and the gender thing wasn’t an issue (in fact a few times, given how surprised people were for me to take off my helmet and reveal myself as a woman, it came in pretty handy!). The exception was in Egypt, where I experienced a lot of challenges by men who appeared to find it quite provocative to find a single woman on a motorcycle – that’s definitely not something those men would usually see in their culture and it seemed to be interpreted as the act of a woman with no honour, so that wasn’t a great deal of fun and often very intense.

ABR: Is there any advice you’d give to other women who would to do a solo long-distance journey, but are perhapsbut off?

CE: Just go for it! I decided pretty much on the spot one day that I was going to give it a go – I think as long as you approach every situation with an open mind and a good level of respect for the people whose country you are passing through, you generally won’t go too far wrong. One big recommendation though, is to learn to tune into your instincts about situations. They generally get sharpened up pretty quickly and it’s the best defence you have against dodgy situations.

ABR: During your ride you worked with a charity which involved using motorcycles to reach remote villages. Howdid this come about, and how did you help them?

CE: I knew in advance of the trip that regardless of how much I prepared or tried to be responsible for myself, it was fairly inevitable that if I was going to make it to Cape Town, it would most likely only be thanks to the help of strangers that I would meet along the way. With that in mind, I knew in advance that I’d want to give something back in some way, so volunteering with an organisation made sense. My background is in finance, so I was keen to help out in some way with microfinance, as it’s a concept that I think can be put to really effective use. When I contacted such an organisation in Malawi though, they pointed out that they didn’t so much need my finance expertise as my knowledge of motorcycles to help them out with their fleet of 80 bikes that were constantly breaking down for no apparent reason.

ABR: Did you have much knowledge of motorcycle maintenance before you were asked to help?

CE: I’d taken a few courses in the UK and had been doing my maintenance every day quite obsessively, but that was about it. However, when I checked out their bikes and spoke to their mechanic, it was clear that there was almost no maintenance being done there, so I designed a “love your motorcycle” maintenance manual for them and spent the next month or so training their riders. It was both effective and fun and reduced their fleet running costs by 60%.

ABR: You then were contacted by an organisation that was developing a midwives on motorbikes project, how did you help them?

CE: They were keen to start a project where midwives would be trained to ride out motorbikes in Tanzania to enable them to reach rural mothers and provide pre-natal care – typically each day in Tanzania, 24 women die through preventable causes in pregnancy and childbirth, so this pre-natal care strategy was an important part of the solution. They needed me to train the midwives in maintenance in order to make the journeys sustainable.

ABR: After that, did you go on to finish the ride to Cape Town? If so, did you return back to ‘normality’ for a while?

CE: Yes indeed, I finished the journey all the way down to Cape Town via Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia to reach South Africa. It marked 40,000 miles with no punctures, breakdowns, accidents or anything stolen. Alas, when I returned to the UK (the bike was shipped back) the bike was stolen within two weeks of resuming life in London, never to be seen again! I started work again as a stockbroker, but it wasn’t long before I was asked to go back to Tanzania to do the midwife project.

ABR: And how did Pikilily come about after that?

CE: I started Pikilily shortly after the second trip to Tanzania with this project. It was clear that the number of motorbikes on the road in Tanzania had exploded since my last trip – that’s when I found out that it had become legal to ride a motorbike as a taxi in Tanzania in 2010, providing jobs for otherwise unskilled young men and access to markets, health and opportunity for their passengers in a country with relatively limited public transport. Sadly though, in any year, typically a moto taxi driver stands a 69% chance of crashing, with hospitals having dedicated ‘motorcycle crash wards’ to manage the fallout. When I realised that a lack of road safety and motorcycle maintenance were huge contributing factors, I realised I had the skills and experience to help. The initial idea was just to set up a simple motorcycle workshop where we’d practice and train riders in maintenance but also in road safety. All our apprentices would be women to give them a chance to get involved in engineering and also to have a chance to generate income to support their families, if they so desired.

ABR: And what does the name mean?

CE: The name splits into two parts – the “piki” part comes from the Swahili word for motorcycle, which is “piki piki”. “Lily” is typically thought to be a flower of women and connection. Together, we get the new and alternative spelling for my favourite chutney, so it had to make sense!

ABR: How do the locals perceive what you’re doing?

CE: At first, people were just really intrigued as I’m sure you can imagine, this kind of workshop is unique to my belief in the whole of Africa. That said, people were also full of praise that some training and facilities would be offered to make an impact on the crash rate, as most people have either been in a crash, or had their lives affected by a family member having one, so the time really has come for something to change.

ABR: What are your plans for Pikilily for 2018?

CE: Huge! Since we launched at end of 2016, we’ve grown in various ways – our training has taken us across the continent and we’ve trained over 1,000 people in motorcycle maintenance and road safety in the last six months alone in Congo, Mali and Ivory Coast. We’ve also renovated two motorcycle ambulances and trained five women to ride and maintain those bikes, as well as take training in self defence and first aid, as we will launch our very own rural community ambulance service in February next year, which we hope to scale across the country. Likewise, we’ll be running mass training events for moto taxis in Mwanza in collaboration with the road traffic authorities and finally, we hope to buy our first container of quality helmets for sale to local people as an alternative to the terrible quality £5 ones that are the only design available currently.

ABR: How can I, or readers of ABR, help Pikilily?

CE: Please spread the word via Facebook, Twitter, or hit our website (details below) to receive the newsletter, make a donation via PayPal on one of the links there or contact us if you think you have skills to offer and want to visit or volunteer with us.

ABR: What advice would you give to other riders who want to help you change lives?

CE: Please get in touch! We are a small but passionate team so far and doing as much as we can on a very lean budget – help is always great! If you’d like to read more about Claire and the fantastic work she’s doing with Pikilily, or if you want to make a donation, head to www.pikilily.com or give them a follow on:

@pikilily_tz
/pikilily
@pikilily_tz