Chinese rigour meets African zest on a joint railway venture

‘We have had to adjust,’ says one Chinese boss on the Addis Ababa-Djibouti line with masterly understatement

The new Chinese-built electric locomotives and train line from Addis Ababa to Djibouti. Photograph: Paul Schemm/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

The new Chinese-built electric locomotives and train line from Addis Ababa to Djibouti. Photograph: Paul Schemm/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

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The Ethiopian platform guards in smart red waistcoats and hats stand rigidly to attention along the platform edge as the 8am train to Djibouti begins to move off from Addis Ababa station. Each looks rather self-conscious and awkward.

Within five minutes the scruffy urban outskirts of Addis Ababa are replaced by green fields stretching to hills silhouetted in the distance, small village huts and cattle walking beside the railway line. The carriage speaker system makes a “safety and hygiene” announcement: “Do not take shoes off, lie down on the seats, raise your voice or spit in the carriage; remember to flush the toilet, turn the taps off after washing your hand; please keep the tidiness – it is everyone’s responsibility.”

The new Addis Ababa to Djibouti railway line, in operation since January, is a joint venture between the governments of Ethiopia, Djibouti and China; Beijing built and largely financed the $4 billion (€3.5 billion) endeavour.

The Chinese are also operating the line for its first six years before handing over to the Ethiopian Djibouti Railway (EDR) company, hence the Chinese train conductor, the Chinese maintenance workers moving through the train aisles with walkie talkies and the general air of regularity and conformity – at least at the start of the journey.

Because the farther east, and farther away from Addis Ababa, the train gets on its 728km route through the Ethiopian highlands down toward the desert flats, the more the exuberant spirit of the Horn of Africa exerts itself over Chinese attempts at order.

“We have had to adjust, admittedly,” Wang Hugue, the Chinese operations manager, says about passengers carrying khat, the mildly narcotic plant chewed all over the Horn of Africa as a stimulant, while banned and classed as a drug in China. “Initially we didn’t allow it, but EDR said that it was part of the culture, and we appreciate we can’t destroy traditions and we need to respect each other.”

Chinese employees of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti train line stand at the Feri train station in Addis Ababa. Photograph: Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images
Chinese employees of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti train line stand at the Feri train station in Addis Ababa. Photograph: Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images

Rocks on the track

Before sitting down in his office at the Djibouti train terminal, Wang was on his walkie talkie discussing a “small accident” involving the train and a camel.

“The amount of livestock along the route is the main reason we had to slow the train down,” Wang says about the rather plodding 50km/h speed limit. “At the beginning there were a few problems. The farmers would stop the train by putting rocks on the track.”

One Djiboutian who took the train earlier this year to return to his home city after a trip to Addis Ababa recalled the train coming to a sudden juddering halt, after which he saw men with rifles running towards the train as it began to reverse and gain speed returning towards Addis Ababa. Farmers now receive compensation for lost animals.

“Since January we’ve resolved a number of initial problems, and the train is running more smoothly,” Wang says.

Indeed, after leaving Addis Ababa, the author’s train arrived at each station roughly on time during its 12½-hour passage.

Passenger satisfaction, however, is tempered by nostalgia for what has been lost in the bid for modernity.

“It’s like being transported as cattle in a container: you’re sealed up at Addis Ababa before being deposited at your destination,” says Abdikhalid, a Dire Dawa businessman who used to take the old railway line that was constructed in the early 20th century and conveyed the novelist Evelyn Waugh when he came as a reporter for the Times to cover the 1936 coronation of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.

The passenger train during the opening ceremony of the railroad line in 2016. Photograph: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The passenger train during the opening ceremony of the railroad line in 2016. Photograph: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“Before, you could open the windows and at each place the train stopped, sellers rushed up: you could buy vegetables and fruits, and gifts for your friends and family. At one stop you could get a good shirt and pair of trousers,” Abdikhalid recalls.

“If there was a choice I’d take the old train,” says Julius, an Ethiopian visiting his aunt in Djibouti. “Then you could hear all the different languages and see the different cultures and peoples of this region. This train just goes straight through everything.”

Freedom of movement

Nevertheless, the advent of the train service is a further spur for optimism at a time of increasing peace and stability in the Horn of Africa. The consequent freedom of movement and increased commerce has some commentators talking about a new dawn for a region previously blighted by conflict and a roll call of tragedy.

Indeed, by early afternoon on the 8am to Djibouti, the train had finally come to life: the two-thirds empty carriage at Addis Ababa had filled up with passengers chattering away in a mixture of Amharic, Somali and French – Djibouti was a French colony – while sharing bags of food with each other.

An entrepreneurial Ethiopian woman miraculously appears carrying thermos flasks dispensing the first coffees of the day (and doing a roaring trade). People sprawl on seats above a floor littered with shoes and flip-flops that have been taken off, and discarded stems of khat.

Instead of the rather melancholic traditional Ethiopian music piped through into the carriage earlier, George Michael is singing “You gotta have faith”.

All the while the Chinese maintenance workers continue nonchalantly passing through the carriages to tinker with air vents and the like. “The train is much better and safer for everyone,” Wang says. “Though for the camels it’s dangerous.”

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