Cyclist focuses on the awareness and support of women in Uganda.
© COPYRIGHT by Tammy LR Meserve
September 14, 2011
Brenna explains her journey this way: “I am cycling for many reasons, and to say that I am doing this ride for women, unity, and hope all over the world would be a broad generalization. Through what I call the Moon Cycle Africa campaign, I am raising money for an organization called the Shanti Uganda Society. Shanti Uganda is a registered Canadian charity that runs empowering, educational and holistic programs to support communities impacted by war, poverty and HIV. Some of their projects include a women's income generating group, a teen girl's group, and also a birth house and learning center that was completed in March 2010. Before I departed on this journey, I was able to raise enough money to purchase a bicycle for each of the staff at this birth house, and just recently, (Sept 3, 2011), there was a blog posted on the Shanti Uganda website that informed me that the bikes had been received!
There are over 90 women registered to give birth at this center over the next few months, and I am now campaigning to raise money to support these births. To sponsor a birth costs $50 CND, and folks can donate by visiting http://www.shantiuganda.org/pages/the-moon-cycle. They can also write a check to The Shanti Uganda Society (memo: Moon Cycle Africa) and mail to:
The Shanti Uganda Society
607 - 228 East 7th Avenue, Vancouver BC
V5T 0A1 Canada
By sponsoring a birth, one will directly assist Shanti Uganda's birth center in it's mission of lowering maternal and infant mortality rates, reducing HIV/AIDS transmission rates from mother to child, improving access to education and supplies and honoring every birthing woman.”
I met Brenna on Friday, September 2, 2011 at the rest area on Route 1 in Newcastle, Maine. I had corresponded with her via Facebook a few days prior and we’d decided on this spot as our meeting place, right on her way, where I could offer food and friendship while having the opportunity to meet this sweet, journeying soul face to face. Since she is a vegetarian, I made her a spinach, red onion and shiitake mushroom quiche, and took along extras such as cucumbers, cantaloupe, bananas, and water. I arrived at the picnic area only minutes before she did, and had the lunch spread out and ready on a table sheltered from the weather and easily spotted from the entrance. I watched her approach, traffic whirling past her as she put out her left arm to signal the turn, then riding confidently into the rest stop. I felt grateful that she had afforded me this opportunity to meet her in person and provide food and friendship on what must be an exhausting, yet incredibly exciting expedition. As she reached the picnic table I’d claimed for us, she got off her bike and reached out to hug me as if we’d been pals forever. And that’s exactly how you feel when meeting her. It’s an immediate sense of knowing, a kindred spirit, a sweet and gentle soul who simply wants to be an asset to the world and do her part to improve the life of someone else. She instantly becomes family, someone you care about and want to stay in contact with.
Her full, given name is Brenna Odette Coupland. She loves the fact that Brenna means Raven. This beautiful, determined young woman who will celebrate her 23rd birthday on November 12 while she is South Africa or Botswana, sports tightly wound dreadlocks decorated simply and sporadically with colorful ribbon that I found absolutely fascinating. She wears very simple, colorful jewelry made by women in Uganda and around her neck hangs a small leather-like pouch filled with a few special items given to her by her parents, George and Karen Coupland.
Her bike is laden with camping gear and the bare essentials and since she is approximately 5’7” and about 120 pounds, she is happy for the weight of the bike and gear (an estimated 85lbs total) to avoid being tossed about in windy conditions.
A self proclaimed introvert, Brenna says that she is confronted by challenges every single day.
“Everyday there is a challenge, and usually more than one, that I have to overcome,” she said. “Whether it's internal, or physical, growth always comes from overcoming the challenges. Sometimes it's something as simple as feeling shy about asking someone for help, and other times the challenge is in finding some quiet space to be alone again when I'm feeling reflective. I am becoming more and more confident about my capabilities, and less and less afraid of the world. Most people, I'd say 95%, that I encounter are welcoming, inviting, and want to be a part of the journey, so my process is allowing that; learning to receive and to practice gratitude.”
When Brenna reaches New York, she will then take a plane from the JFK airport to Cape Town, South Africa. The airline allows for sporting equipment (her bike) to be taken on as luggage. Once in Cape Town, she will connect with a friend named Dave (he is cycling around the world: http://www.tiredofit.ca/) and the two will bike to the north of the continent to Morocco.
“I plan to spend my first 3 weeks in Cape Town, volunteering, or doing something constructive. Not sure yet,” explained Brenna. “Then my friend will meet me and we will proceed to bike toward Morocco. We hope to stop in Uganda and visit the Shanti Uganda Society, possibly volunteer for 1-2 weeks with whatever is needed at the time. I estimate the ride will take somewhere around 9 months, so somewhere around July 2012 is when I believe I will return home.”
Brenna covers between sixty and ninety miles each day. She stops for the night in areas where she knows it is safe to camp or finds strangers who wish to offer a place to stay via a website called, ‘WarmShowers.org. On that site, anyone interested in offering food or shelter can post their name, city, and what they have to offer and adventuring cyclists can peruse the site, locating those along their route.
“I use the WarmShowers.org resource whenever it is possible,” said Brenna. “I love meeting other people who are fond of cycling, and it is really nice to have someone with whom to share some quality, casual company at the end of the day.”
As with any mechanical device, breakdowns are inevitable. However, Brenna does not worry about such circumstances and is adequately prepared should one occur.
“I have all the tools I need to deal with the most common bike mechanical breakdowns. I can change a flat tire, I can repair a chain, and I have several bike tools to allow me to deal with simple issues that come up. Staying with people in the Warm Showers community is also very helpful, in that I am able to talk with someone who is familiar with bikes. I am grateful for the people I have met along the way that have shared their knowledge, skills, and even bike parts to help me with things I didn't understand, and now I do.”
Asked how she became aware of the needs of women in Uganda, Brenna stated, “ I met a wonderful woman named Kristen Porter, who was president of Shanti Uganda's board of directors at the time, two years ago at a yoga studio in Vancouver. The yoga studio was hosting a conscious giving Christmas craft fair, and Kristen was selling jewelry and bags made by Shanti Uganda's women's income generating group. Originally, I was interested in traveling to Uganda and volunteering with the organization, but it wasn't until one year had passed that I really got involved. I wanted to cycle from Vancouver (where I was living) to my home in Winnipeg and was looking for a charity that I could support along the way. Shanti Uganda really resonated with me, and I called up Kristen, and we made it happen. Last year I completed my ride and raised money for the women's group, and also had the great privilege of serving on the board of directors myself from May 2010 until April 2011.”
Brenna wholeheartedly believes her cause is the right one to give her enthusiasm and support to and hopes others will agree by donating to it.
“As much as cycling and traveling is rewarding for myself on an individual level, I feel like, if I am to take this journey and expend so much energy, that I want to share it with an organization or cause that I believe in. As I meet new people, it often happens that talking about Shanti Uganda is a great ice breaker! I am able to draw people in and share the stories about where the jewelry I wear comes from, and encourage people to get involved in their own way. It's also a way for me to connect with the world, and it also helps me to feel less alone as I travel. I remember that I am part of a global community and family. I am drawn to Shanti Uganda's integrity. The people involved in the organization excel in staying true to their original vision and continue to empower women and communities through education, skill building and goal setting. While I lived in Vancouver for 3 and half years, I was a student and a teacher of yoga, and find that I really resonate with the principles of yoga philosophy (unity, honesty, kindness). I see how Shanti Uganda is able to integrate these principles into their projects.”
There are many who become as excited about her cause as she is and make donations on the spot.
“Occasionally, I have folks hand me donations to pass on to Shanti Uganda, but I would definitely love it if it happened more often! In fact, yesterday I was talking with a couple and they asked if I was riding for a cause. I could barely finish my sentence: “Yes, I'm raising money for a charity called Shanti Uganda. They support HIV women…” and before I could finish, the woman turned to her partner and said, "Oh, we must give her some money!" and handed me $20. Turns out she had taken part in a 1.5 mile swim that morning to support women with AIDS.”
When asked if she ever feels fearful during her journey, Brenna is quick to reply.
“Nope! Sometimes dogs chase me, but not for very far. I think the biggest (real) danger while riding is traffic. I'm really careful to practice safe biking (rear view mirror, reflectors, lights). I don't ride at night, and I have a cell phone.”
Brenna has great memories of her journey, some she is grateful not to have missed.
“Cadillac Mountain (located within Acadia National Park in Maine) was great! I was really hemming and hawing about going up this mountain (I ride a heavy loaded, mountain bike, that at it's lightest weighs about 80 pounds). I was just about to miss the opportunity when I met a very kind man who insisted I see the view from the top. So the real accomplishment, I think, was pushing myself to just do it - just to get to the base of the mountain - because I knew once I started I wouldn't want to give up. I felt really vulnerable about half way up, and started to doubt whether or not I would make it all the way. I was trying not to make eye contact with anyone that drove by, or that was sitting in their cars on the side of the road, because I was afraid they would say something that made me doubt my capacity. I was afraid they would offer a ride and that I would take it! I really got into a zone and listened to this really strong voice inside that told me no one could make me doubt myself but myself, and that I was only as strong and capable as I allowed myself to be. I think that there is this voice inside every woman (and man!), and that it's what we should listen for in times of uncertainty.”
Very good advice indeed! I like that…a lot!
When attempting to pinpoint a specific part of the journey that stands out in her mind as a favorite, Brenna hesitates to narrow it down to that extent.
“There have been no favorite parts specifically. Everyday there are beautiful moments and everyday there are also moments I would rather be doing anything else but biking. The best parts of the journey are very simple: the feeling I get at the top of a challenging hill, being invited into someone's home at the end of the day, a strong, hot coffee in the morning, or the feeling of a hot shower after a humid day of riding.”
Brenna has a Facebook page called, “Moon Cycle Africa” where folks can read her journal entries as she makes her way toward her goal. Her reasoning for that name is as follows: “It's kind of a double entendre. The menstrual cycle of a woman is sometimes called a moon cycle. It lasts an average of 28 days, and so too does the cycle of the moon in the sky! The moon to me represents a femininity and strength that I build in myself and support in Shanti Uganda along my journey.”
To find out more about Brenna Coupland and her journey, find her on Facebook at “Moon Cycle Africa” or check out her blog at: http://www.mooncycleafrica.ca/