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The daily bread race: Cairo’s delivery cyclists are on the move

EBRAHIM RIYAD, BIRD STORY AGENCY

DING! DING! DING!… a slim figure on a bicycle, one hand on the brake handle and the other hanging onto a tray of bread delicately balanced on his head feverishly thumbs the bike’s bell to get pedestrians out of his way.

With the attitude of a daredevil, Shaaban Muhammad Ismail weaves his way through the madness of Cairo’s early morning traffic. 

Ignoring the gridlock of impatient motorists, Ismail and a host of other bread delivery cyclists race to their destinations to get khobz (bread) to supermarkets, mini-shops and innumerable other outlets across the city, in time for early buyers.

This has been Ismail’s daily routine for close to five years, delivering bread across the heart of the capital, which boasts a population of some 21.3 million people in the wider city and, at number 41 in the global TomTom Traffic Index list, is Africa’s most congested city.

“Once I have finished making the first delivery, I return to the bakery to wait for the next load, and at the end of the day and after [the bread] is finished, I get my pay,” Ismail explained.

The 20-year-old began delivering bread in 2017 after first teaching himself how to cycle. He makes up to ten trips across town and back to the bakery, daily, to pick and deliver bread – a staple food in Egypt — to his many customers.

For Ismail, this is not just business; it is adventure and life. Even when everything around him is halted, stranded, and jammed, he has to keep moving.

“The competition is very fierce. Even if we are headed to different destinations, if I meet someone and he increases his speed, I have to catch up with him and pass him. This is what makes it fun and inures from the fear of danger,” Ismail explained.

The fifth of the nine siblings, like thousands of other young men from humble families, while able to read and write, Ismail did not go beyond elementary school. The family needed all hands on deck to put food on the table so he had to leave home early to join his brothers, working at a vegetable outlet.

“My first job was at a vegetable store in the Dar es Salaam area of Cairo with my brothers. And because I was younger, I was given work and paid little money… I left after one year and moved to another area called Ataba, where I got a job selling different items such as sandwiches, beans, and detergents,” Ismael said.

“I also did extra work at a poultry farm feeding chicken; any type of work as long as I could earn money; the only thing I did not do was wiping shoes,” he recalled. 

Before Ismail joined the delivery service, he first spent three months working at bakeries in Biba, a city in the Beni Suef Governorate, some 170 km south of Cairo – an area with a Coptic Christian heritage and home to a cathedral that dates back to the sixth century.

“I had enjoyed working in a bakery because, besides the money, I could get a chance to eat some of what is classified as damaged bread that is usually offered to the workers so that it does not go to waste,” Shabula said with a shy smile.

“As I moved from one bakery to another, I realised I had to learn how to deliver bread on a bicycle. I was not yet familiar with the profession of delivering by bicycle, and this was a big disadvantage for me,” Shabula explained.

To survive the cut-throat competition and get a steady job delivering bread, he had to learn how to cycle. But he had two challenges; get a bicycle to practice on and overcome the fear of cycling on crowded roads amid the heavy traffic.

Soon, an opportunity presented itself.

“One day, the bakery owner called me to work with him inside the bakery, and there I saw for the first time the delivery by bicycle,” Shabula said.

“I decided to be staying late into the night when work was over so that I could learn to cycle; After a few tries, I started becoming confident. First, I learned how to balance before I started practising carrying bread baskets on my head. I fell several times, but as practice makes perfect, I did it, and today I am a self-taught professional,” he narrated.

Asked about the dangers of the daredevil survival tactics out on the road, Ismail answered that it was the dream of a better future that motivated him to go out every day.

“Though I can bake, I love riding the bicycle and delivering the bread more because being inside the bakery makes me feel trapped and psychologically bored,” he said.

“On the wheels, I see new things daily, and as a young man, I need to know and learn many things about life, especially buying and selling in the markets,” he continued.

However, this job is not without its challenges.

“It was 7 am when a car rammed my bike from behind and tossed me six meters away, but thank God I only suffered minor bruises. Since then, I try to be extra careful,” he concluded.

By The African Mirror

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