A combination of various factors ranging from conflict to diplomatic isolation have unintentionally turned the Eritrean capital into a cycling paradise.
Asmara only has about 500,000 inhabitants, which combined with low salaries, high import taxes and fuel shortages means the city has few vehicles. Those you do see often tend to be from a different age.
Roads are not only relatively empty of cars. Locals lament the departure of great numbers of young Eritreans who have left over the last 20 years because of hardships brought by regional conflicts and enforced national service under a government that brooks little dissent.
As a result of its circumstances, Asmara offers a very different landscape compared to many African cities congested with traffic. This, combined with the wonderful climate, makes it a dream for cyclists to get around. “Cycling is part of our culture,” says a 25-year-old man.
Asmara’s architecture is also admired and it was recently made a Unesco World Heritage Site for its striking art deco buildings, a legacy of the country’s time as an Italian colony from 1897 until 1943.
Bike repair shops abound all over Asmara. Eritrea has a long history of self-reliance that began during its 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia, after which its international isolation has made importing bicycles and spare parts extremely expensive.
Eritreans ride bicycles of all kinds and colours: mountain-bikes, city bikes, racing bikes. Young and old, women and men, athletes and housewives – all seem to embrace the “bicicletta”, the word for bicycle in the local language, Tigrinya, that is borrowed from Italian.
Those who rely on public transport have to endure long waits before jumping on an extremely crowded bus. “Buses are so old and so few,” says Salam, a 30-year-old graduate. “Having a bicycle is life-saving here.”
Environmental sustainability has long been promoted by the government. This has included limiting plastic production and usage, reforestation campaigns, safeguarding the country’s green areas and distributing bikes imported from Dubai and China.
For many Eritreans money is tight, and even if vehicles are available, bicycles remain the most affordable mode of transport.
The recent peace deal with Ethiopia in July 2018 resulted in the border opening for the first time in 20 years. Now cheap Ethiopian merchandise is sold all over the country, lowering the cost of living.
A combination of conflict, diplomatic isolation and UN sanctions, lifted after nine years last November, means there are still shortages of many products. Lack of fuel has resulted in cars and buses often having to be parked up for a long time, leaving people few choices other than walking or pedalling to get around.
Cycling is the most popular sport among Eritreans. Introduced by the Italians, competitive cycling is a source of pride among the population. The Eritrean national team, which includes Mosana Debesay pictured below in Austria last September, is extremely successful in international races.
The recent rapprochement with Ethiopia has left many Eritreans hoping that the economy can develop faster, making everyday life in Asmara easier.
By anthropologist Milena Belloni and journalist James Jeffrey