Harer, in Ethiopia’s far east, covers a striking variation in land and people. The area is home to some of the best coffee in the world. In the south, Somali-speaking nomads wander across endless red wastes of savannah, in a landscape dotted with termite mounds, with their herds of camels and cattle, following the sparse rains. Eastwards, dust, wind, and the baking heat of the merciless midday sun create an environment where only the strong and cunning survive. Although is largely desert and low-lying savannah, Harerge’s northern reaches are mountainous and fertile, and it is there where the country’s only stretch of railway bisects the tip of the zone, leading from the nation’s capital to the port of Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden.
This railway, which plays an extremely important role in the modern Ethiopian economy, carrying a large share of its imports and exports, was first conceived by the Swiss craftsman Alfred Ilg, who arrived in the country in 1877 to take up the post of technical adviser to Emperor Menelik. It was a mammoth undertaking and fraught with problems.
For every kilometre of line, more than seventy tonnes of rails, sleepers, and telegraph poles had to be transported not to mention sand, cement, water, and provisions for the workers. The terrain was difficult: two large viaducts and many smaller earthworks had to be built within the first fifty or so kilometres of line, and others further inland. To minimize cost, a narrow gauge of only one metre was adopted, but expensive iron sleepers had to be used in view of the presence of termites, which could be expected to consume anything made of wood.
While costs continued to soar, the French, British, and Italian governments began to haggle over the ‘internationalization’ of the line. It all came to a head in December 1906, when the three foreign countries, without consulting Menelik, signed a Tripartite Convention ‘dividing’ Ethiopia among themselves. By this agreement the British and Italians recognized that any railway between the Djibouti border and Addis Ababa should belong to France, while the French government agreed that the line should extend no further than Addis Ababa.
The Tripartite Convention spelled an end to hopes of internationalizing the railway. The French government ordered the railway company to repay its debts to the British and, since this was impossible, it was liquidated in January 1908. A new railway company was established two months later, under the control of a French bank.
The line was eventually extended to Akaki – twenty-three kilometres (14 miles) from Addis Ababa – by 1915, and eventually reached the capital two years later, a full twenty years after the beginning of construction work at Djibouti. The service, which has operated ever since, traverses a line of 785 kilo metres (487 miles), has twenty-nine tunnels – one of them nearly 100 metres (328 feet) long and thirty-four stations.
Although the original agreement specified that the line would run inland by way of Harar, the railway company soon realized that they could save money by avoiding the Hararmountains and instead pass through the nearby lowlands. It was therefore decided that the line should run to a place which Menelik chose to call New Harar – later better known by its local name, Dire Dawa.