Camel trains block Ethiopia’s new railway line

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“MORE than any other technical conception or social institution,” wrote the late British historian Tony Judt, “the railway is synonymous with modernity”. But the road to modernity can be bumpy. So it was during the inauguration of the world’s first steam railway in 1830, when a Liverpool dignitary was run over by a train. The same is true in Saudi Arabia today, where the construction of a high-speed railway almost derailed by the advancing sand dunes. And also in Ethiopia, where Africa’s newest major railroad was frustrated with one of civilization’s earliest forms of transportation, the camel.

Since trading began last month, at least 50 animals have been killed crossing the new Chinese construction line connecting Addis Ababa, the capital of landlocked Ethiopia, to the port of neighboring Djibouti. Of these, 15 were camels run over in a single collision, according to Tilahun Farka, the head of the state-owned Ethio-Djibouti Railways, which operates the locomotives.

Camel herders in the arid scrubland east of Addis Ababa report numerous other such incidents during the previous year of testing operations. Nado, a 21-year-old nomad on the outskirts of Adama, says his family lost 35 camels in a particularly bloody collision. “Some of my brothers have lost all of their camels,” he complains. And it’s not just camels. Donkeys, cows, sheep and goats have also been affected, although it is the unsightly camels that are most at risk. “The train never stops,” says Nado. “It hits and it goes.”

For the Ethiopian government, this is a puzzle. The train, which is supposed to cut travel times to the coast from two days to ten hours, runs at about half its speed. Mr. Tilahun says his company pays 30,000 Ethiopian Birr ($ 1,089) for each camel, double the market price. So a camel owner maximizing his profits would put the whole herd back on track. Maybe that’s why there were so many collisions.

The problem is also technical. It was deemed too expensive to build an elevated track, like the one that crosses Tsavo National Park in neighboring Kenya, allowing wildlife to cross freely. Ethiopia has instead opted for level crossings and a few tunnels. But the shepherds complain that there is too little of it or that their camels refuse to use it. Some say they don’t know where to go for compensation and often don’t get what they are owed.

In most parts of the world, fences are used to prevent dangerous passages. But for the large nomadic population of eastern Ethiopia, mobility is important. Fences built along some sections of the track have been demolished by nomads who look suspiciously at distant officials. Mr. Tilahun hopes all Ethiopians will come to see the railroad as a “national resource”. Nomads may be the last to feel this.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the title “Danger, traversée de camels”


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