As June 3rd marks World Bicycle Day, lets cycle into the past, present and future of the bicycle in the Eritrean context. The bicycle has a rich history in Eritrea.
To tell you honestly, the bicycle didn’t have the best of starts in the country, especially in the countryside, where it was called Arebia Sheitan (the devil’s carriage). It was the name initially given to these two-wheeled contraptions by our people about a hundred years ago. The impact of this superstition can still be seen across our border where the priests are loath to ride on bicycles.
How can a thing stand and move only on two wheels? Our priests were ready to excommunicate it the first time they saw it used by the Italian soldiers. But the same question could have been asked about our people. How can one stand and move only on two feet? No wonder, in the quadruple animal world, human beings are considered the incarnation of the devil for choosing to walk on two feet only.
Gradually, people began to use the bicycle. It was sleek, fast and cheaper than the car. It moved in narrow streets, was easily steered and maneuvered and needed neither fuel to make it move nor battery to start it.
In the 1950’s many Eritreans owned bicycles. From those that went clickety-click, without light and mudguards, to those who shone in the sun and were fitted with all kinds of industrial and traditional accessories, such as front light, reflector, pump, bell, carrying rack for one’s belongings, a rear-view mirror, an ear of corn or a flower for decorations, a mud flap with the country’s flag, etc.
“Have you seen Girmay zooming past with his shinning bicycle, Astier?”
“Seen him? I am dreaming of one day marrying him.” It reminds me of a hilarious story my dad once told me of his own father.
My Granddad used to bike to work every morning and afternoon. But, on one unfortunate morning, as he was getting ready to go to work, to his own dismay, he found his bicycle’s front tire flat.
“Why don’t you take mine,” suggests my dad trying to be helpful.
My granddad who always wore immaculate suits to work would hilariously go on to say,
“Son, your bike looks like a prostitute!” referring to the many colorful decorations his son’s bike had, “I’d rather walk, thank you very much!”
During the armed struggle the mid 1970’s were the golden age for underground resistance movement in which every member of the Eritrean society, from schoolchild to bar owner and bank manger, could play their part.
The public support was very crucial for the Eritrean armed struggle and a clandestine spy group was formed that became known as “the Fedayeen.”
The Fedayeen were mobile units of fighters who would sneak into Asmara, take lodgings with sympathizers, work undercover for several months, then return to the front. The Fedayeen were organized in small, interlinking cells, each with its own code name. The Fedayeen were also in charge of performing executions. Their high-profile targets were the Ethiopian army commanders. However many times they might change cars or alter their routines, these men could never feel safe.
The Fedyeen’s tactics were dictated by Asmara’s confines. The city was tiny and could be crossed on foot in an hour. About a quarter of the population was Ethiopian and, therefore, not to be trusted. How was it possible to stage ambushes and executions and then vanish into thin air, in one of the most parochial capitals in Africa, where everyone knew each other’s business? Cars were highly visible because so few Eritreans could afford to own them and, therefore, were ill-suited to serve as getaways. The Fedayeen fine-tuned a tactic that would have seemed laughable had it not proved so effective: the bicycle assassination squad.
Half of the assassinations carried out by the Fedayeen were successfully staged by bicycle squads.
Fast forward 50 years and Merhawi Kudus is taking on the likes of Mark Cavendish and Andri Grieple on the final stage of the tour de France Champs-Élysées stage. Prior to that final stage, though, Eritrean Cycling epitome came in the form of a certain Daniel Teklehaymanot who, against all odds, won the Polka dot jersey on stage 6 of the 2015 Tour De France and donned it for an impressive four consecutive stages and was dubbed king of the mountains. The very instrument that was used as a getaway in the 1970s’ clandestine operations is now used to establish Eritrea’s name in the world of Cycling, and, boy, are we doing a terrific job at it. According to UCI World Rank Eritrea is placed in the top 30 while it stands second in the African continent.
Since the introduction of the bicycle to Eritrea in 1936 by the Italian forces, many homes have welcomed it as a simple means of transport. Eritreans have always been very fond of bicycles. The young and the old, boys and girls all love to ride to work or home. In some ways, the bicycle is also a wagon of the poor.
Villages located near large cities have been the great beneficiaries of the bicycling culture. Fostered by this culture, Eritrean cyclists have been registering amazing successes in cycling tournaments in Africa and other parts of the world. Back in 2018 the 1st edition of the Africa Cup Cycling Competition was successfully held in Eritrea. The event solidified the rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia four months prior to the competition as the event witnessed the full participation of the Ethiopian National Cycling team.
As I wind up, I would like to mention the use of the bicycle by essential workers during the pandemic. At the end of March, Eritrea, like the rest of the world, introduced strict lockdown measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As part of the measures taken public and private transport were halted. But the bicycle, which has for ages been an essential part of the Eritrean life, continues to hit the road. I suppose it is for this reason that bicycle repair shops were among the first to reopen following the government’s guideline to reopen businesses such as building materials and electrical appliance shops.