Africa

Cycling heaven: The African capital with 'no traffic'

Cyclists in Asmara, Eritrea Image copyright Milena Belloni

A combination of 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.

Cyclists in Asmara, Eritrea Image copyright Milena Belloni
A donkey cart on a road in Asmara, Eritrea Image copyright Milena Belloni

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.

Liberty Avenue in Asmara, Eritrea pictured in August 2018

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.

A man on a bicycle riding past a street market in Asmara, Eritrea Image copyright Milena Belloni

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.

A street scene in Asmara, Eritrea Image copyright Milena Belloni

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.

A bicycle repair stall in Asmara, Eritrea Image copyright Milena Belloni

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.

A man on a bicycle riding past a bike repair shop in Asmara, Eritrea Image copyright Milena Belloni
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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."

A bus station with old buses, markets traders and some people with bicycles in Asmara, Eritrea Image copyright Milena Belloni

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.

People with bicycles walking past street stalls in Asmara, Eritrea Image copyright Milena Belloni

For many Eritreans money is tight, and even if vehicles are available, bicycles remain the most affordable mode of transport.

A man cycling past a market in Asmara, Eritrea Image copyright Milena Belloni

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.

People and someone with a bicycle walking past a street stall selling tupperware in Asmara, Eritrea Image copyright Milena Belloni

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.

A donkey on a street with several bicycles in Asmara, Eritrea Image copyright Milena Belloni

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.

Mosana Debesay of Eritrea at the 91st UCI Road World Championships 2018 on 25 September 2018 in Innsbruck, Austria Image copyright Getty Images

The recent rapprochement with Ethiopia has left many Eritreans hoping that the economy can develop faster, making everyday life in Asmara easier.

x Image copyright Milena Belloni

By anthropologist Milena Belloni and journalist James Jeffrey

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