New, old worlds collide on train tracks

STEPHEN SCOURFIELD finds China’s progress extends all the way to the horn of Africa

Relic rattler railway carriages with timber-slatted seats still run between Ethiopia and Djibouti, here on the horn of Africa, and smugglers like them.

You can take anything you like on the train — sheep, goats and contraband electronic goods. The smugglers push them out of the glassless windows before arriving in a town, cohorts collecting and loading them onto camels.

The rolling stock and yards of the old railway station in Dire Dawa look like an unkempt museum. But a ute backs up to the maintenance shed, and men start unloading a big engine part. The shed is full of massive machinery — lathes the length of a van.

Yes, this is still a working station, but not the one I am using today.

I am driven a long way out of Dire Dawa, Ethiopia’s second biggest city after the capital, Addis Ababa, to the town’s new, Chinese-built station.

Ostentatious and imposing, with the facade of efficiency, security is as tight and occasionally random as the airports in Ethiopia. Perhaps more so. They hand-search every item in every case, query binoculars, look side to side and tuck a Swiss army knife back in a case, confiscate a birthday bottle of champagne and then I see Chinese with beer on board.

I have a ticket with a carriage and seat number, but seats are not allocated like that. Everyone just gets on board, heaving luggage onto the narrow racks above and spreads out. The “buffet car” is a couple of ladies sitting in one carriage with vacuum flasks of hot water, strong Ethiopian coffee, some small food items and big mixes in containers that look risky for a Western stomach.

But there’s a good feel on board. People move around and chat. The young man opposite me is a nurse, born and bred in Dire Dawa, going to Dubai for two weeks — his first time out of the country. Dubai is just over four hours flight away and a world removed from his dusty, handmade African home.

The train runs more than 500km and can do this at 150km/h. That would make the journey the scheduled four and a half hours. But, after an hours delay in the train’s arrival, I hear that the company has now limited the train to 80km/h, having reputedly already paid 20 million birr ($1 million) in compensation for herded animals killed along the way. I can bank on seven hours today.

All over Africa, slick Chinese-built infrastructure comes at a price. Improvements in transportation for locals may come as the by-product of mine access. Smooth highways open up easy travelling for tourists, and easy escape for wildlife smugglers. While sometimes Chinese labour is brought to build, this wasn’t the case for the railway, which required local employment.

Ethiopia, this hub of Africa, home of the African Union, one of the key offices of the United Nations on this continent, is being driven with clear vision towards a bright future by prime minister Abiy Ahmed, 42, and its first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde.

And this new train between Dire Dawa, out in Ethiopia’s Muslim east, and Christian Addis Ababa, represents all of this.

There is the obvious contrast between the old Djibouti Ethiopian Railway carriage and this one, of course.

There is the rub of relationships with neighbours, and compromise that comes with development.

And there is the journey itself. For hours, I am in part of the Great Rift Valley, where our human ancestors lived, in this, the original country which we would all eventually walk out of. Then there is the sharp transition into the Awash region, cutting through the Awash National Park, north of Lake Beseka, flanked by volcanoes.

They are a crucial part of the story here, the crucible of humankind. The thought of this is sharp as I chat with the young male nurse from Dire Dawa, off to see a bit of the world.

He’s amused when I start taking photographs through the window glass. “Why do Westerners do that?” he laughs.

“Because it’s different for us,” I say. “This place is normal to you, but unusual for me. Just as Dubai is normal to someone who lives there. But it will be, like, WOW for you. You’ll be taking pictures there, just as I am here.”

I tell him that a cow in a green paddock will still put its head through the fence wire to eat weeds on the verge.

He grins white teeth.


Lucy’s an old girlfriend. I’ve visited her before in Addis Ababa.

She was about 21 when she died and I’ve stood before her 40 per cent complete skeleton and squinted at her fossilised bits, seeking and seeing family connection. Lucy, a hominid thought to have lived 3.2 million years ago, was found in the Awash Valley, which I passed through in the train just yesterday, in 1974.

A female Australopithecus afarensis, she was considered our oldest relative until Ardi appeared on the scene in 2009. The first of her fossilised bones were found in Ethiopia’s Afar Rift in 1994, and it took 47 scientists 17 years to piece them together and more time to prepare them for the world to see.

Ardi is short for Ardipithecus ramidus and she lived 4.4 million years ago — more than a million years before Lucy. Hairy, long armed and about a metre tall, and wide armed, she’s the oldest member of our human family tree found so far.

She is also the most complete early hominid specimen found, with most of her skull and teeth, pelvis, and feet and feet intact. In fact, one of those hands in particular seems to reach out across the years.

Both Ardi and Lucy are in the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, and have, in turn, been hailed the most important discoveries for the study of human evolution. One of Lucy’s most striking features is a valgus knee, which shows she usually walked upright. Ardi’s feet are rigid enough for her to have walked upright for some of the time.

But I have to say that I have moved on from Ardi, and even my old girlfriend Lucy.

For my new interest now at the museum is Selam.

This child lived 3.3 million years ago, died in a river environment and was quickly covered. A freak sequence of events helped to fossilise the remains — volcanic ash covered the silt and minerals seeped into the bones.

After the initial find, it took five years to recover Selam, and another 10 to extract the fossilised skeleton from the limestone that encased her. Each grain was removed, here in Addis Ababa, by experts at Ethiopia’s Ethnographic Museum. It took 12 years to prepare to separate the jaws.

Selam is more complete than Lucy and 120,000 years older.

She is a child of Ethiopia, as we may all be children of Ethiopia.