Salambo discovering Ethiopia
There’s nothing like a trip outside the city to lift up one’s spirit again. This time, we went East to Dire Dawa and Harar, the famed walled city, home of the poet Arthur Rimbaud in the last ten years of his life. Take any anglophone travel guide and Dire Dawa is mentioned as an uninteresting and sleepy town, worth stopping in only to use its airport or reach Harar. However, for anybody living in Addis, Dire Dawa is a refreshing change with its tree lined avenues, walking pavements and attractive old houses.
Dire Dawa is probably the most European of all Ethiopian cities, with its distinctive urban planning of parallel and perpendicular streets crossing the three main avenues which converge to the train station. It is the kind of city where it is possible to walk about just for the pleasure of it -a rare occurrence in Addis- and that may be why I find it so pleasant. Dire Dawa came into existence at the beginning of the 20th century when the French were building the legendary train line linking Addis to the port of Djibouti which for nearly a century, was a life line through Ethiopia. The emperor Menelik II who commissioned the line in the 1890s wanted the train to go through the old trading city of Harar, but it was technically too complicated because of its position in high altitude. So Dire Dawa was born and many of the Europeans who participated in the construction of the line moved to the new city.
For the French in particular, Dire Dawa is full of historical references. Not only this new city was a major stop on the train line half way between Addis and Djibouti, but it was also the heartbeat of the Chemin de Fer Franco-Ethiopien, the company running the train line which after Djibouti’s independence from France became the Chemin de Fer Djibouto-Ethiopien. In Dire Dawa, the train company employed and supported generations of workers who were taught to run and maintain the engine and the track. One of the conditions to get a job there was to speak fluent French, which was taught at the Alliance Française de Dire Daoua. The Alliance, which became an institution in the city, has remained a vibrant cultural and social centre even though the train stopped running in 2009 and there’s less of a reason to learn French today. The day we visited it (late on a saturday afternoon), the wide courtyard was packed with locals (mostly men) watching a football match. The sight was quite entertaining: on the outdoor theatre stage, they had installed two old fashion TV boxes to be able to simultanuously watch two different games. The football fans could hardly follow the game on the tiny TV screens, but that didn’t stop them from enjoying it!
Because it was a busy saturday afternoon, I didn’t have the chance to meet Mr Josef, the president of the Alliance and probably the most famous resident of Dire Dawa. I however met an old train worker just outside the now closed train station; he addressed me in perfect French, telling me that he was forced to retire when the train stopped running. He was hoping that it would restart soon but had his doubts about it. If it does, it may be too late for him to work there again considering his age. He gave me the sad feeling that Dire Dawa had lost part of its soul when the train station closed. The great entertainment of having new visitors and new faces in and out of the city every other day is somewhat gone now. The line is currently being refurbished mainly with EU and Chinese funds. A brand new track will be built and modern engines will replace the old struggling one which used to take three days to complete the 785 kms journey. A knowledge of French will no longer be necessary and a whole generation of train workers who gave their life to the train company will be redundant.
For more information on the train line, a very good book was recently published by French photographer Hugues Fontaine, “un train en Afrique”, www.huguesfontaine.com