Salambo discovering Ethiopia
Ever since the French poet Arthur Rimbaud became a trader in the Eastern city of Harar, Ethiopia has captured the imagination of the French people as an exotic land boasting a millenary culture. Towards the end of the 19th century, precisely at the time Rimbaud was in Ethiopia, a number of French commercial explorers came to establish trading links with Menelik II, who was the then king of Shoa before becoming emperor of a greater Ethiopia. Menelik II is remembered as the Emperor who modernised Ethiopia and saved it from the threat of colonisation. He famously rebuked the Italians at the historical battle of Adwa in Tigray in 1896.
He was also the one who gave the French the concession to build the legendary train line between the port of Djibouti and the new capital of his new kingdom, Addis Abeba. The modern line was to replace the six-week mule trek linking the high Abyssinian plateaus to the sea and therefore to the rest of the world. It took twenty years to build the 785 kilometres line, with construction starting in 1897. A number of conflicting interests impeded the work to go ahead as fast as planned. Part of the traditional nobility disagreed with it and demonstrated against it. The British legation in Addis did not approve it either as they feared a reduction in traffic to the port of Zeila in British Somaliland. At that time, Somalia was divided between French Somaliland (Djibouti since 1977), British Somaliland, Galla Land (belonging to Ethiopia) and Italian Somaliland further south around Mogadishu. As World War I ended and a new world emerged from it, a satisfactory agreement was reached and trains began to run on the line. The railway was operated by the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer Ethiopiens, which later became the Ethio-Djibouti railways. The main train station in Addis, still called La Gare and still a landmark in the city centre, was designed by French architect Paul Barrias according to the French style of the time, and inaugurated in 1929.
For decades the railway was a life line in the country, enabling goods to move to and from the capital. Many traders took the train on a regular basis, forming friendships along the way. However, a few years ago the line had to be closed down as the track had deteriorated and become too rudimentary. The asphalt road, running parallel to the track, was used instead for the transport of goods. Luckily, the epic journey was well captured in a documentary by Samson Giorgis, an Ethiopian national who had lived in France for ten years and decided to use the train from Djibouti when returning to his home town of Addis: “The Djibouto-Ethiopian: stories of a return.”
Today, the line is undergoing a massive renovation programme to increase the capacity of the track. A new longer network with a wider gauge is being built by a Chinese company, and funded by a Chinese Bank. The European Union also provided a 50 million grant towards it.
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I traveled on this railroad several times in 1967 between Addis and Dire Dawa. The best deal was Third Class. One could sit in the coach’s open doorway and see the Awash wildlife—wild pigs, oryx, and several other ungulates whose names escape me now.
A new book has just come out on the Addis-Djibouti line: Un train en Afrique (African train) by French photographer Hugues Fontaine. It is beautiful recollection of archive pictures as well as portrait of the people who worked on the train line before it closed in 2009. Published by Shama Books with the support of the Centre français d’études éthiopiennes (French Centre for Ethiopian Studies) based in Addis.
I always wonder and would like to know who was the first train driver who was on board when the rail was under construction?
Maybe you could ask Hugues Fontaine, he recently wrote a book about the train story, he may know or he may know someone who knows…