The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 8th September 2004

My Favourite Journey - by train between Addis Ababa and Djibouti

Given by - Stephen Bell

Reviewed by - Julian Kay


This was (and still is) Stephen Bell's favourite journey and one that he had made many times over the past forty years. And the fifty-strong audience were delighted to step aboard on the evening of Wednesday 8 September and join an expert guide on a beautifully illustrated and highly informative tour. The rail journey of 800km from the Red Sea coast (or at least from New or Dire Dawa) to Ethiopia's highland capital would not be the most convenient or economical. Instead of spending a day one could cover the distance by plane in a few hours. It was very expensive. In the 1930s the single first class fare had been £16 when the equivalent first class journey in Britain - over a much easier terrain - would have been no more than £2.

Our guide had warned us that we could not expect the ultimate in comfort. We could more freely (than in a bus) stretch our legs and circulate among our fellow travellers and maybe hear a conductor (in our compartment) on his knees singing a love song to some delighted grandmother. And to be fair to our guide, he did not insist that we all followed him along the roof of a moving train as he made his way to the cab in order to meet the driver.

It was of course the character of the journey that made it so special, the stunning views one would experience on the journey from sea-level to 8000 feet. The hubbub and bustle at the brief stops en route when passengers would alight to purchase food and drink from railside vendors - unless presumably the passenger was the Emperor. There had been an imperial carriage!

The railway was the dream of Alfred Ilg, Menelik's Swiss technical adviser. It has played a vital role in the history and development of modern Ethiopia. Without it Ras Tafari, regent from 1916 and later as Emperor from 1930 might never have come to power if in 1916 he had been unable to use the rail to rush with his forces to the capital from his power base in Harar.

It was to end the isolation of the Ethiopian highlands and it set the final seal on the centrality of the not-very-old capital, Addis Ababa. It gave birth to new towns, Dire Dawa, Nazereth and Mojo. The ideas and fashions of the capital would eventually percolate to the country. “Actually and symbolically one of Ethiopia's lifelines” (to quote Henze on the cutting of the railway by Somali guerrillas).

Construction commenced in 1897 and it would take twenty years for the line to reach Addis Ababa. The difficulties were immense. The local Afars objected to the 'iron monster' penetrating their territory. The camel caravans that had controlled the traditional trade route between the highlands and the Red Sea coast since time immemorial feared for their future livelihood. From the very beginning it was obvious that the costs of construction in very difficult terrain would exceed available funding. Until the line had crossed through the arid and infertile desert lowlands and reach Addis Ababa and the Highlands, tapping the potential markets and produce of the fertile and well populated high Ethiopian plateau, it would never be a paying proposition.

The speaker touched briefly, but with authority, on the complex financial arrangements for the international (i.e. French and British) backing for the venture. In 1902 Menelik, angered by what certainly appeared to be French government replacing French finance, forbade all further work on the line beyond Dire Dawa. The issue was only resolved by the 1906 Tripartite Agreement between Britain, France and Italy (and guaranteeing Ethiopia's independence 10 years after Adwa!).

It would be another twelve years after the completion of the line in 1917 before the railway station was built - the cheerful fin-de-siecle and art deco creation lying at the bottom of the capital's spine - Churchill Avenue.

Once again we are indebted to the speaker for a wonderful talk and superb illustrations and for the attention to detail. Not all speakers would have a 1539 map of Ethiopia by Fra Mauro so as to be able to throw a little more light on one of the views from the train towards the end of the journey - Menagesha.

First Published in News File Winter 2004

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