The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

From the Red Sea Coast to Ethiopia’s Imperial City

Author - Mrs Agnes Willoughby Bancroft


This article is an early first hand account of a journey to Addis Ababa in June 1929 via the 'French Railway'. It is taken from an unattributed newspaper cutting of the period.

Train standing outside Addas station

It was with a quickened pulse we heard the words on our little French boat, "Tomorrow the stop is Djibouti", for we knew that after leaving Djibouti, we would be on the last lap of our journey to Addis Ababa, Abyssinia. So, June 2, dawned bright, breathless and blistering. About 10:30 a.m. we squinted out from beneath hot helmets at a group of glistening white houses crowded between a dazzling sea and a desert that was abruptly cut off by range upon range of purple mountains. We nervously ate dinner while everyone who could speak English - and those who couldn't - teased us about Djibouti, where we were to spend two and a half days waiting for the train. "Brackish water, sandstorms, flies and heat", they laughed. However, it was Africa to me and the very thought of it brought the thrill of adventure and mystery, but supreme, the thought of being an ambassador for Christ Jesus. Our trunks were loaded on a small boat by naked Somalies. How the trunks ever reached shore safely is more than I can explain, for several times I thought they were surely on their way down where "McGinty went" and I turned away with the words of a fatalist, "Well, if they go, they go".

Djibouti proved to be all that our friends on the boat had said, only they did not make it strong enough. But after two and a half days in that furnace-like resort, one cloudless morning at 5:30, we found ourselves on the little French train. After a half hour of tooting and jerking, the train pulled out of the station amid a great deal of shouting and commotion. We passed along the seaside, on whose sands lay men and women, beggars, perhaps, who had no homes. Then slowly we wound around the desert, every now and then getting a glimpse of the charming blue Gulf of Aden. When the first official stop was made there was nothing around, but a collection of dirty, wretched huts, black rocks and sand. Naked children stood around chanting a fascinating air which consisted of about two lines sung over and over. Many, many terrible wrecks of humans were seen begging all along the track and many a sigh and prayer went up for them from our lips.

View from rear of train

After the train had climbed several miles, it stopped and we were permitted to withdraw to a little shack where dinner (?) was served. In the afternoon, we found we were leaving the desert, for shrubs and bushes, then trees began to appear. The heat of the lowlands was left behind and as we climbed we leaned out of the window and rejoiced in the cool air. As evening came we saw Dire-Dawa in the distance. And what a confusion and turmoil at the station! Once I got wedged in between two goat skins filled with a fluid, carried on the backs of two natives, and there I stuck, the dirty skins holding me.

Man with spears

It seemed everyone carried spears, knives or goat skins and I secretly decided not to aggravate any of these wild looking people. That evening we had dinner in the garden of the hotel where we were to spend the night. How different from the sun baked town of the night before! Here beautiful stars shone down upon vines, orange trees and fragrant flowers in the garden in which we sat. As we ate, the proprietor, a jolly, good-natured stout man with a beaming face, walked about tables like an indulgent father, asking if there was anything we wanted. "He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, And I laughed when I saw him in spite of myself". And to make our joy complete he added, "I heard Americans were coming so I had ice cream made, for all the world knows your fondness of it".

The next day on the train we passed desert and saw many mirages. We also passed fertile country, wild woods and rocky glens, rugged hills and deep ravines, great plains covered with lava and forests. We were now in Abyssinia and at the every station we saw soldiers. Wrapped in white shammas (shawls), carrying rifles at every angle, fuzzy haired, but with noticeable Semitic features, these soldiers stood at attention (?). We passed a great deal of land which was once the scene of volcanic disaster. As far as we could see there was black lava, now old and cracked, but the mountains rising around were colored from yellow to lavender, amethyst, violet, pink and orchid. We passed ant-hills, some 10 to 12 feet high, odd looking trees, flowers, monkeys, dik-dik, wild pig, gazelle and herds of antelope. We passed through a plague of locust. The sky was darkened with them and the ground was covered. For a space everything was green again, then on the horizon could be seen a brown cloud rising from the earth and stretching high into the sky, and soon we would again pass several miles of the plague.

As we neared our second night's lodging place, we crossed a large bridge which spans the then dry bed of the mighty Hawash river. That strange river which rises far across Abyssinia, which is fed by the heavy rains from the mountains; that strange river which has no mouth but loses itself in the sands near French Somaliland. The stop of Hawash consisted of several houses surrounded by a high wall on the top of which barbed wire was stretched. This is lion country and the place of the wild tribes of Abyssinia.

After we left Hawash the next morning, the country became much prettier; we saw there had been rain, for everything was a clean green and here and there were pools of water. In the afternoon the weather became much cooler and we donned our coats.

The mountain scenery was magnificent. Several old volcanoes were passed and many lava beds. Now farms came into view; villages became more numerous; tall, dignified Abyssinians wrapped in white shawls, carrying spears, guns or swords stood along the tracks looking at the train. Our little train began to climb - slowly and slowly it went as though out of breath. At about 4:30 p.m. we rounded a hill and as I looked up I saw above me the imperial city, our destination. The air became different: clear and cold and even though we were but eight degrees above the equator, my teeth chattered. Up the steep slopes I looked to the many whitewashed and thatch roofed huts and the wooden or stone houses surrounded by walls. And covering almost completely these huts and houses were the tall eucalyptus trees.

Addis Ababa railway station under construction

The train pulled up before the station, stopped, jerked, wheezed, then finally settled down and soon we were receiving a hearty welcome from some of our missionaries who had come down to meet us. We sped through the city in motor cars, passed donkeys on whose gaily colored saddles sat fat women, huge black heavy capes around them, heavily veiled on whose cloth-covered heads reposed large European hats. I held my breath many times for everyone walked in the street since there were no sidewalks; droves of donkeys slowly separated before our automobile, then some of them changed their minds and when the auto was within a foot of them, would turn right into it. Dogs sullenly trotted from under the wheels and several times a stupid sheep would run bleating within a few feet of the front wheels, only to be followed by numerous others. Through this throng, we horned our way until we reached the top of the hill, which is the center of the city. Here we saw the open markets, the open court trials, the stores. Everything seemed peaceful, every person happy, I thought, until I caught sight of the many beggars that lined the street. There were the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deformed and others reeking with foul sores, and my heart sank within me. We now left the city behind and up the road we skimmed. On each side of us native huts peered from the forest of eucalyptus, while homeward bound astride and afoot, went a continuous line of natives. Now and then we passed a motor car, sometimes on the right, sometimes on the left, all we had to do was to watch where the native chose to drive and we would take the opposite side. Suddenly there was a break in the trees and there stood the George Memorial Hospital, and stretching around it the compound on which stood the friendly looking houses. The natives standing about the large stone gate uncovered their heads and bowed low as we were whisked through and up the shaded drive to the place for which we have prayed; to the place that is standing in a dark land like a bright and shining light; to the place where the sick are healed and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.

Mrs Willoughby Bancroft

The article probably comes from The Womens Missionary Magazine of the United Presbyterian Church. Agnes wrote several articles for this magazine while she was in Ethiopia, mainly describing her work at the hospital. It is known that she made other rail trips to Djibouti sometime in 1930 and also in February 1932 before finally leaving Ethiopia by train in November 1933. She took a camera with her on these trips and a number of photographs of these journeys have survived. The first photograph of the train at Addas station is the same photograph that appears in the newspaper cutting. The information comes from a scrapbook and an album of photographs that have surfaced recently.

First Published in News File Winter 2004

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