When I come across people and get asked where I work, I would say, “I work at the railway station – I have been working there four years now.”
“Ah, the old railway station! But what actually is there?”
At a face value, seeing it at a stranger’s position, their asking would seem okay. It might even be as normal as any other question can be. In my position, however, it is different. I’d find it alluring to make me tell a bunch of stories that go with it at a time.
By mere happenstance or in anyway, had these curious people been able to see the tourists who flock to visit Eritrean railway, or by any chance had these very people associated themselves with the place, as I do, they would have known what to ask at least. Trust me, en route to Massawa, on board the steam locomotives, people don’t only get away from Asmara, through the hills, to the plains at the bottom. People can feel they’ve been put in a time machine.
A year or so ago just before the announcement of the corona virus pandemic, two groups of buffs: one from Japan and another from Italy had arrived at the station early in the morning. And I, together with my industrious colleagues, was there at their disposal. And Ansaldo442, its water tanks filled with water and its furnace coal-fired, was whistling loudly as a welcome gesture.
Eventually, whistling as a happy child does when his mom rewards him of his merit, Ansaldo442 left off the station carrying all of us. As we were in a short trip to Arborobue, about 12.7 kilo meters from Asmara, I was doing whatever I can to introduce the tourists with the places though each of the groups had their own tour guides. You know, to show the tourists all the splendor there is, to make them feel cozy, to be welcoming if they ask you to take photos with them, and to think about getting tipped are all part of the journey. But most of all, I showed those tourists how proud I am to own this antique – Ansaldo442.
Ansaldo442 the legendary driving cab, though it is the product of an Italian Engineering company – Gio. Ansaldo & C. which was founded in 1853 and existed until it was taken over by Finmeccanica in 1993 – it is a typical Eritrean in many ways. The fact that Ansaldo442 persevered the long way from early 20th century, and at the same time enjoyed the comradeship of different trains of the product of another Italian company, that is Societa Italiana Ernesto Breda (SIEB), shows that it has learned to look out for its comrades no matter what. If anything, this makes a typical Eritrean.
Contrary to our journey thither which took about 20 minutes, our journey homewards took three hours. Well, Ansaldo442 doesn’t want any rushing uphill. And another thing is, the passengers had to see sites and wonders, and they had to take photos as well because they didn’t want to miss the beauty. They were tourists after all.
Shortly after we bade farewell to the tourists, I had a fever, I was coughing, and I spent days sleeping in bed. There is no way one might not find it too much when the announcement of the corona virus pandemic is added to the story. Anyways, everybody was about to be put in lockdown accordingly. So the very thing that rang in my mind was my time with the tourists. And I remembered some of the Japanese tourists had worn face masks. God forbid, I made it so sure that these people had infected me with the virus. But it turned out; it was just a common cold. Isn’t relieving?
Now I want to take you back. Consider it a flashback. As a matter of fact, it is what you would experience had you been on Ansaldo442 – the remnant of old history and yet a living proof of a time machine.
When the Italian colonizers were about to invade Eritrea, they put too much faith in building railway so that to assist them expand. Even after they had claimed Eritrea as their colony, they needed to accumulate more power for further expansion and better grip of their claims. This is only to satisfy their insatiable appetite which was one of the peculiar characteristics of the then mighty powers, also known as colonialists or invaders.
Leafing through the pages of history books, highlighted in bold letters, you will read that these trains played considerable role in extending the would-be-homes of the imperialists; and unfortunately, our grand fathers were forced to make room for them. Google might not be interested to include such an entry in its search engine, but people can find it clearly put and earnestly described in Zemihret Yohannes’ Italian colonization in Eritrea and in ‘even the stones are burning’ of Roy Patman, that, of course there were resistances against the invaders.
The power of the colonizers was so huge that some of our poor grandfathers were tempted to consider it Godly at some point – nobody can deny that. For instance, I recall my grandfather on my mother’s side, telling me a story of a man with little status, who, with the coming of the Italians, came to be called Ra’esi.
His story runs like this: Italians were moving up to Asmara from the port city. Then the man, by the notion that he had a driving social position to defend, set out to fight the strangers. Courageously by night, as he reached the edge of the mountains at the outskirts, he couldn’t believe what he saw. These vast number of lights lit the ground below and he immediately made up his mind that he doesn’t want to fight with God for he believed none of the scene before his eyes was man’s doing. Thus, he welcomed the advancing fleet of army home. By doing that, not only was he able to secure his old status but also crowned himself a new title that is Ra’esi.
The concern is not about how right and accurate it was, but how my grandpa conveyed it. My grandpa is not a historian, only thing is, he is scorched by the blazes of these hard times. In 2021 hind sight, I ask myself who makes a story so simple that a child can understand? And as this same child grows to be an adult, he finds it so hard to avoid the story’s flashing in his mind the moment he hops in the passenger coaches.
History has it that the opposition spirits had already been weakened by continuous strikes of drought. Too, for purposes of collecting tributes from the weakly organized Eritrean society, the Abyssinian feudalists were, ruthlessly imposing their oppressive and cruel deeds especially upon the highlanders of Mdrebahri. Not to mention, comparable magnitudes of wars from the Mahdists of the Sudan had also been waged to make the people of western lowlands acquiescent and submissive. In general, these and many other factors are said to have facilitated a crack that the colonizers could take good advantage of. You can sense this as a reel of picture when you are aboard the trains. Only then, you will fathom the slight remedies that history itself was forced to make. And if it wasn’t for the slight remedies and all, our grand fathers were destined to be exploited to the limit that if they were not buried, they’d end up toiling and acting as man power and man power reservoir for the comfortable accommodations of these new comers. There is a clear image you can’t avoid from the reel though – these harsh times gave rise to the Eritrean political body. And believe me; Eritreans shed their blood for generations to prove that they don’t want to let this Eritrea disappear. Thanks to these generations of patriots, Eritrea is now a tried-and-true nation.
To wrap it up, let alone the tourists, you as a citizen, knowing that your fathers, your fore fathers and what have you, put body and soul to lay the rails and dug out the 30 tunnels and still kept its legacy, don’t only get transported for mere distances like the other travels. Off course, the length of the distance of the travel is one of the reasons that appeal to the tourists; not to mention, film directors want to record the noise and the rumble created when the wheels that carry the body of the train, as heavy as 10 tons, is in contact with the steel rails (railway tracks); they also want to display in their films that the blare is heard from kilometers away; photographers want to capture moments of the train exhaling dark smoke out of the smoke-box through the chimney; there are also these group of people who want to experience the hard seats of the third class passenger coaches. What is hard to believe is that from all these enthusiasts, I have known people who enjoy inhaling the smoke, the iron smell, the dust, that, in the tunnels, when you sneak out of the window, smashes you as it trails backward; and these people are for sure from the industrial age who had been bossing our laboring poor grandfathers and great grandfathers.
After this much has been said, after we find our ways out of the quagmire that the pandemic has brought the world into, after we assure, as in our normal life, that all the time in the world is ours for the taking, when people still want to know the kind of work there is at the railway station, I would be in a position to tell them, “Guys, you have got to visit it and get the feeling of transporting back in time thereby discover the history that made Eritreans be, and experience the legacy that the railway tracks preserve.
“Because I work there, I can stick my ear suitably to the railway track and tell if Ansaldo442 is coming.”
Aron Tesfa-alem Kelkai