Wednesday, January 23, 2013


I'm a Northern girl.  Born and primarily raised in the upper Midwest.  My ties to Africa are few.  Other than having a few friends who were born in South Africa, being fascinated  with Morocco and following team Rwanda, I haven't been drawn to any one thing in this massive continent--until now.

A couple months ago, Jonathan Patz approached me with a project he just started.  He told me about Ethiopia--a country I, like so many others, associated with poverty and famine.  Since Jon's work deals with climate change and public health, a large concern of his, and several leaders in Ethiopia, is air pollution and the health of residents.  In only the past six to seven years, Ethiopia has seen quite a bit of change.  Roads have been paved--funded mostly by China, the economy has boomed, higher education has increased, the leaders are promoting a green technology/economy and gas rickshaws have taken over the roads.

This country, flanked by Kenya, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia is on the verge.  On the verge of either falling into a trap that most wealthy countries have fallen into, or changing the rules and working towards truly bettering itself for generations to come.  We have all witnessed the rapid changes in China as the middle class has grown and the automobile has become king.  The United States, I'm sad to say, is no better.  Before even beginning to work on this project, I had to ask myself "Who am I to ask another place to change their way of living?" 

So how does the health of Ethiopia relate to cycling you ask?  Well, this specific project, although in the absolute beginning stage, has to do with the gas powered rickshaw.  For those of you who have never seen a rickshaw, it is essentially a bicycle cab.  Used to transport people and goods, it is usually the most economically friendly and the fastest way to move through cities in third world nations.  Just seven years ago, the rickshaws in Ethiopia were human powered.  Now, they are gas powered and have increased in such great numbers it is difficult for people to maneuver through the streets on traditional bicycles.  Jon's project is three fold.  One, we'd like to see the rickshaws be turned into electric assist with solar panels.  Two, we'd like to see a bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure put into the city of Hawassa to be used as model in hopes of it spreading throughout the country.  Three, we'd like Ethiopians to gain jobs by having them repair the rickshaws and possibly manufacture them.

As I stated, we would start with our focus on the city of Hawassa.  This university city, about the size of Madison, sits roughly 270 km South of Addis Abada--the seat of the African Union.  It's a perfect place to start in more ways than one.  It already has a road system in place that would lend itself to bike lanes, women are often raised biking there and it is safe for them and finally, the former mayor and now current vice president of the University of Hawassa along with the president of health services at the University of Addis Abada want these changes to occur.  All change must start as a drop of water in the bucket.  Hawassa could be used as a test tube for the rest of Ethiopia and possibly Africa.

Yesterday, with a balmy temperature of 3F, I biked downtown to brainstorm with a very impressive group.  Our diverse collective included Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute, Spencer Black, former state representative and current professor of urban and regional planning, Brandon Booth who does advocacy for Trek, Jake Moskol, assistant director at the Global Health Institute, Jason Vargo, a fellow at the GHI, Brian Anderson, attorney at Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek and current bike fed board member, Maggie Grabow, current phd student at GHI and  Selamawit Zewdie, who works with the Hawassa Children's Project and with Jon Patz.  Dave Cieslevicz and Joe Sessenbrenner (both former Madison mayors) will also be included in the project.  I was overwhelmed by the energy and excitement this group had regarding this project.  Thoughtful questions were raised and I think we made some amazing first steps.  To be in a room with so many positive people, who want to work on public health by promoting bicycle usage, makes me happy to donate my time.  Although Ethiopia is far away, ultimately their health as a country affects us all.  Yes, I usually follow the "think globally, act locally" rule of thumb, however, the thought of working with a city/country that is on the verge of an enormous change (good or bad) excites me.  I doubt I can make much of a difference but I will most certainly learn a lot along the way.

Check out this video below that Brian Anderson sent me.  It only makes me want to bike in Ethiopia even more!

Me (on right) and Jonathan Patz (on left) biking to the meeting

Our group in Brian Anderson's law office

I want to thank Jon for including me in this project, all the amazing people that showed up to the meeting and Whyte Hirshchboek Dudek law firm for providing us with a beautiful meeting space.

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