Photograph — ISG

The car-free day initiative which was pioneered in Africa by Rwanda, is gradually spreading to other African countries. The bimonthly event, which promotes non-motorised transport, highlights issues on environmental protection (air pollution), encourages a healthy lifestyle through collective physical exercise and combats non-communicable diseases.

In Rwanda, the car-free day began as a monthly event in 2016 as a City of Kigali initiative. A year later, it was made a bimonthly event on the recommendation of President Paul Kagame after he attended it in 2017.

“It started as a response to the lack of enough sports and gym facilitates where people can go and exercise,” said Jean-Claude Ruzindana, the director of social services at the City of Kigali.

Participants in the Kigali Car-Free Day. Photo Credit: The New Times

The event runs from 7am to 10am, and during this time the city of Kigali closes roads, while the group exercises and activities take place. Beyond the collective exercises, other partners like the country’s Ministry of Health join to offer free testing for conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, eye testing, breast cancer and so on. All exercises and testing are done at the Rwanda Revenue Authorities headquarters.

“The initiative gave the ministry’s Rwanda Biometrical Centre an easy platform to reach out to people through healthy education efforts, and to also follow up to those who have been found to have certain conditions especially those that fall in the NCD cluster,” Ruzindana added.

Huge success attracting other countries

Since its inception, the number of participants has been growing and the exercise has recorded huge success. This was evident in the way it became the only African city shortlisted for the Global Wellbeing City Award, owing to the car-free day initiative.

In December 2018, regional neighbor Ethiopia became the second country to organize its own car-free day. It then held the second edition in January and the third earlier this month, with people from the capital Addis Ababa and other cities across the country participating.

Nairobi also commenced plans to launch a similar event since mid last year. The proposal involves having a car-free Wednesday and Saturday in Westlands and the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD), the city’s busiest areas. However, the plan has not yet materialized.

In late January, Kenya’s government also declared Wednesdays and Saturdays as car free days with plans to start on February first, only to later suspend the exercise for at least two weeks till mid-February.

The hope is that it will tackle the Kenya’s infamous traffic, reputed to be among the heaviest in the world and contributing to increased air and noise pollution, the man-hours wasted in jams and cost in fuel.

Also planning to introduce their own car-free days are Uganda and Zimbabwe. This has shown an increase in efforts by African countries to control lifestyle conditions.

Participants in the Kigali Car-Free Day having medical tests. Photo credit: The New Times

Expansion plans

The Rwandan government is expanding the initiative outside the city so that more people can benefit from the communal exercises.

“Most of the participants are people who know about the benefits of exercise, but we want to also bring on board those who normally do not participate in sports or any sort of exercise,” he said.

Kigali is also encouraging the private sector to be part of the event, because of the value that could be derived from this.

“Exercising is a cross-cutting factor in controlling non-communicable diseases; the number of people coming for screening during the car-free day is increasing which is a positive” Heads of the non-communicable diseases division at the biometric centre, Dr Gilles Ndayisaba, said.

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