Dire Dawa
Dire Dawa

The Cities Of Ethiopia – Dire Dawa

I have found that Dire Dawa takes a certain amount of getting used to. It is a recent city in an ancient country, having been founded as the initial endpoint of the railroad from Djibouti into Ethiopia around the turn of the century (19th into 20th).

Previously I wrote an article on Dire Dawa, which was not particularly complimentary. I have traveled through Dire Dawa (or DD as it is commonly known) many times, probably about 20, but always on my way to Harar, which is my favourite place in Ethiopia. DD suffered from the comparison. My previous article elicited a howl of protest, one example from a group in Australia who described themselves as former inhabitants of DD. A polite version of what they said would indicate that my perceptions were wrong. I decided to maintain a sense of acceptance of input, which I do appreciate, and took a new look at DD.

I’m glad I did. Instead of arriving at the DD airport and hopping in a car to Harar immediately, I stopped and took a tour with my friend and colleague Mohammed, who had grown up in DD. My perspective has been forever changed.

The reasons I didn’t take a liking to DD at first are fairly obvious. It is lowland, and therefore usually hot and quite sleepy. Only during the rainy season in Addis is it nice to escape to DD.

The place to stay in DD for ferenjis like me is the Ras Hotel. I’ve stopped there many times to have an ambo to overcome the dehydration induced by the heat of DD, but I’ve only stayed a couple of times. Although the lobby is wide and spacious, and the sweaty climb up five flights of stairs to the roof provides the best available view of a surprisingly green DD, the hotel does not inspire a love of the place. One of my first memories of the Ras Hotel is seeing the scarred front entrance, damaged by a grenade attack in 1997, now carefully covered up. The discriminatory rate of 250 birr for ferenjis (us residents enjoy the wonderful advantage of being able to pay in birr rather than foreign currency) compared to 68 birr for nationals further fails to endear me to the place. The hotel also sports an alarmingly greenish pool with a large number of potential health victims splashing around.

A Walk Around Town

Getting past the hotel and the dingy and hot central streets of DD was essential to beginning to turn my negative attitude around. Walking around in DD is not too bad, people are mostly too hot and sleepy to bother you much. There are a lot of people lying across the sidewalks to step over, and like other Eastern towns there are chat crazies to deal with.

Although the heat does create a torpor and raise unpleasant smells, there are two really great things which make DD a nice place to visit.

Graveyard of British commonwealth Soldiers
[including Kenyans and Ugandans] in Dire Dawa

One is the impressive buildings. The Chemin de Fer (train station) is the most obvious and accessible. It sits on the main square with an old narrow gauge engine decoratively resting in the middle of the square out front. The building has an impressive yellow and white front, quite majestic really, although the inside is run down.

The train track arrived in DD in 1896, and eventually stretched on to Addis in 1917. This was a huge improvement for visitors to Ethiopia at the turn of the century, although for a long time they still had to make the long trip from DD to Addis by horse, camel, mule, or foot. The intrepid outdoorsman Wilfred Thesiger was around at the time and deplored the advent of the railroad, much preferring an Addis that was difficult to reach for foreigners.

The train created DD and turned it into the 2nd city of Ethiopia for a long time (3rd during the time when Asmara was in the equation). The much older and more established market city of Harar was left out due to highland inaccessibility, which had been a strength when military defense was of concern, but a weakness when rail locations were being finalized. Added to the comparative advantage of the train station was the addition of various factories, especially during the time of Haile Selassie, which made DD an industrial centre as well.

DD grew not only as the major train station, but also as a French neo-colony in Ethiopia. French influence can be seen in the buildings, in the number of people who still speak French, and even in the Peugeot cars that are still the preferred taxis in the city, rather than the pervasive Addis Ladas.

Perhaps there was a time when France entertained imperial designs on Ethiopia, when Ethiopia was the only independent country left in Africa, the jewel in the crown coveted by Italy, France and England. Fortunately the clever Menelik was able to use these rivalries to gain French arms to help defeat the Italians, and cool European ambitions for 40 years. Those arms came from Djibouti through DD in the crucial run up to the battle of Adwa.

Camels, a common sight in Dire Dawa

The legacy of the French can be seen, although unfortunately not fully appreciated, in glimpses of buildings behind walls. The Recreation Club tantalizingly peeks out at you, with visions of faded elegance of restaurants and tennis courts and petanque pitches (French lawn bowling), safely behind metal gates protected not only by armed guards but by the prospect of impenetrable levels of bureaucracy to gain permission to enter. Even the old Imperial Palace reflects French influence, with grand lawns leading up to impressive pillars guarded by giant vases, again not accessible without a degree of bother beyond my patience. Numerous other more mysterious edifices hid their charms behind high stone walls; an unexplored promise.

I tried closing my eyes for a moment and imagining the descent of hundreds of French officials with their families, escaping from the summer heat of Djibouti to the relative cool of DD. This was a festive holiday town, with plenty of diversions and comforts for the well to do French visitors. Even today there is a regular exodus from Djibouti to DD during the hottest months, although the French mostly departed long ago.

One site in DD that can be explored without too much hassle is the Commonwealth soldiers graveyard. Rehabilitated with nice straight lines of grave markers for a visit by Princess Anne (in her capacity as President of Save the Children UK), access through a metal gate can often be gained from the guard with a key. Wandering amongst the graves is fascinating – the 50 or so headstones bear the names of Africans from colonial Kenya, Ghana, Rhodesia and Nyasaland, amongst others, showing that those who sacrificed their lives in the battle with the Italians were mostly Africans helping to liberate Africa. Three British airmen are buried in the back. The graveyard is very nice and well kept, a huge contrast to the Christian graveyard behind, which has wonderful grave markers but has been turned into an unofficial community toilet.

Next week we continue our tour of Dire Dawa, including the second nice thing about the city!

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