1. Should we consider bike lanes and helmets?
In an article featured within last week’s edition of Eritrea Profile (“No Need to Speed: A Brief Note on Road and Traffic Safety”, 19 December), I wrote about general road and traffic safety issues in Eritrea. The main aim of the article was to outline a number of relatively quick, easy, cost-effective measures that could be implemented in the country to improve child road safety and driver compliance with school zones. Here, I would like to slightly expand upon the topic that I introduced last week by turning to the issue of cycling.
As I (and many others) have previously pointed out, in Eritrea, cycling is more than a sport. It is a mainstream activity and a fundamental part of people’s everyday lives. On any given day, roads across the country are filled with high-level cycling athletes training for their next major competition or with young, up and coming amateurs that are learning the basics and who harbor big dreams of being the country’s next great cycling star. In the country’s small towns and larger cities, bicycle shops and repair garages are always buzzing with activity, while neighborhoods in Eritrea are invariably packed with throngs of young children riding bikes for simple fun and pleasure. As well, people of all ages rely on cycling as a cheap mode of transport for various types of journeys: to work, to school, to shop, and more. Personally, I find cycling a convenient, quick way to get to wherever I need to go; it is much cheaper than taking a taxi and much faster and more comfortable than riding the public bus. Of course, it also offers a number of not insignificant health benefits, which are a great added bonus.
While cycling is such a major part of society in Eritrea, there are several important measures that should be considered by policymakers and local authorities in order to address certain issues and make it more convenient, comfortable, and safer for all Eritreans.
For starters, one important thing to consider is the development of biking lanes, particularly in the country’s major urban areas. Bike lanes, which are basically a portion of the roadway that has been designated by striping, signage, and pavement markings for the preferential or exclusive use of bicyclists, are important and beneficial for several reasons. For example, they help define road space for bikes and for cars, allowing cyclists to ride at their preferred speed and helping to establish a more orderly flow of traffic. Accordingly, this can significantly reduce the rate of accidents and injuries. As well, the creation of bike lanes can prove beneficial to wheelchair users. Currently, many wheelchair users in Eritrea use the sidewalks and roads, both of which can be highly challenging for a variety of reasons (for example, sidewalk curbs can be difficult to navigate). However, the creation of bike lanes can provide a space for people in wheelchairs to travel safely and conveniently.
In addition to these benefits, bike lanes can also contribute to important healthcare savings. For example, a large body of research suggests that bike lanes can help increase rates of cycling, which, in turn, can provide considerable healthcare savings. Earlier this year, my research, published in the journal Transplantation, the official journal of the International Society of Nephrology and The Transplantation Society, discussed how prevalence rates for serious non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, have considerably increased in Eritrea during recent years. While there are a number of factors that have contributed to these troubling trends, an important one has been reduced physical activity and the growth of sedentary lifestyles among large segments of the population. However, increased moderate physical activity – such as cycling – greatly reduces an individual’s risk for diabetes and hypertension (as well as many other medical issues). In a low-income, developing country like Eritrea, the potential healthcare savings from reduced rates of diabetes and hypertension (or other serious diseases) associated with more of the population engaging in physical activities such as cycling, should not be understated.
Last, bike lanes, through encouraging more people to cycle, can also have important social and environmental benefits. For example, they can increase the “livability” or attractiveness of cities and urban areas, greatly decrease the amount of noise, and also support the environment through reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Another important issue that policymakers and local authorities should consider is bicycle helmets. Although bicycle helmets provide cyclists with much needed protection and can greatly reduce the risk of significant injuries or fatalities, they are extremely rare in Eritrea. In fact, the only cyclists who seem to wear them are racers. Accordingly, policymakers and local authorities should explore ways to increase their usage among the general population of cyclists in the country. For example, awareness campaigns could be developed for schools, youth organizations, and other public mediums (such as the radio, television, and newspapers). Initially, the main focus could be on sensitization and increasing the public’s general understanding of the significance and benefits of utilizing bike helmets. Over time, however, local authorities could draft and enforce specific laws or guidelines. Of course, there should also be focus given to ensuring that bicycle helmets are easily accessible for all cyclists. Notably, the growing demand for helmets could also even provide significant benefits for local shops, manufacturers or distributors.
These measures are relatively simple and cheap to implement and they would provide a variety of significant benefits for individuals, communities and the country, as a whole. Ultimately, they would help to ensure that cycling remains a fun, comfortable, safe, and convenient activity for Eritreans of all ages.
2. You can lose a wallet, but you can’t lose a country…
Last week, US President Donald Trump declared victory over ISIS in Syria and announced that the US was withdrawing its approximately 2,000 troops from the country. Unsurprisingly, the announcement drew a broad array of reactions. As well as mass hysteria and significant criticism, there was limited approval and praise. In addition, there were many who raised comments about how Trump’s decision would lead to the US “losing” Syria.
Setting aside any considerations about the situation in Syria or what the US decision to withdraw will possibly mean for Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, the Kurds, and the Middle East, the statement and terminology are especially revealing since they reflect, yet again, the hubris and arrogance that still pervade some parts of the world. The notion that the US could “lose Syria” – as if that country was theirs to lose in the first place – is absurd and an atavism of a bygone era. It starkly reveals a residual attitude from 19th century racism and hegemonic, colonial times.
Several years ago, the renowned scholar Noam Chomsky, while speaking about the post-World War II discourse about the US’s so-called loss of China, memorably stated, “I can lose my wallet, but I cannot lose yours. The tacit assumption of US discourse is that China was ours by right.” Similarly, the misguided assumption here is that Syria belongs to another country by right. In fact, it is a sovereign, independent nation, and regardless of how one views the conflict in Syria, its protagonists, or the politics of the country and the region, referring and viewing countries as such illustrates how the colonial, Eurocentric mentality which had so long dominated – and harmed – the world is, in fact, still common and widespread.
As an African and a citizen of the Global South, I found the comments particularly resonant since the continent and region have been the subjects of such outdated views and perspectives for so long. While colonialism has ended, the reality on the ground in Africa and much of the Global South is that political independence has not culminated in much desired independence or economic and cultural freedom (Afisi 2011: 5).
For my own country, Eritrea, seemingly not a day goes by without a mainstream commentator or analyst employing simplistic images and the usual stereotypes to describe the country. It is still easy to find the commentariat discussing Eritrea’s apparent lack of capacity, social organization, economic capability, or various other elements to transform itself into a supposedly functional, modern state. The country is regularly on the end of attempts to impose foreign cultural, value, or other systems, with absolutely no consideration or regard for its own needs or complex history, experiences, circumstances, or context. Even now, as the country is finally emerging from decades of war and unjust sanctions, and with its resilient people optimistically looking forward to a future of peace, security, cooperation, and development, many of the same actors that played a direct and toxic role in its dark past are seeking to pass judgment, offer unsolicited advice, and dictate its future.