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Dire Dawa: city in the doldrums
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Dire Dawa: city in the doldrums

People used to refer to Dire Dawa as the second biggest city in Ethiopia. Indeed the town was once a vibrant trade center in the eastern part of the country and it was all thanks to the now defunct Ethio-Djibouti Railway System. In connection to the railway, contraband trade mushroomed in Dire Dawa at an unprecedented level and more than any other place in the nation. Although illicit and informal, the contraband trade was the lifeline of the town and together with the defunct railway Dire Dawa seems to have gone into a deep status of hibernation. And now, the economic stagnation has reached its worst levels, writes Henok Reta.

Arguably, apart from its most recent and worst flooding disaster in 2006, Dire Dawa is one city whose place in today’s Ethiopia is gradually waning. The flooding disaster which claimed the lives of some 600 people and displaced ten thousand more attracted a lot of attention including the current US president Barack Obama, back then merely a senator from Chicago, Illinois. Obama remarked at the time that the next order of business in the aftermath of the disaster was to make sure that the affected families are taken care of. Well, one thing that residents of the town are sure of is the fact that the city and its dwellers have not been cared for in a long time.

The memory of the flooding disaster looks to be slowly fading away while other challenges such as poverty is gaining in prominence. As a matter of fact, the challenges relating to sustaining livelihood in Dire Dawa has been on a slow rise during the past two decades. Many residents complain that they are facing problems related to exacerbated living cost, lack of good governance and nepotism within the administrative body.

“Dire Dawa is in its worst degenerate form today; it looks less and less people are choosing to live here in Dire Dawa, which was once a vibrant trade centre in Eastern Ethiopia, Tamerat Goshu, a resident told The Reporter.  Once known as a place to live happily and freely, Dire Dawa has now arguably emerged as one of the failing cities in Ethiopia, whose good days are firmly behind. And this is so for many reasons. According to residents that The Reporter approached last week, the city is running out of its resource and that life is becoming extremely hard to come by.

Once among the most vibrant societies in the country, the plight of the Dire Dawans warranties much deeper investigation. Meet Ramala Mohamed: a mother of five and a longtime resident of the city. Currently, Ramala is head of her family, a job she tries to accomplish by selling samosa (a fried or baked pastry with a savory filling, such as spiced potatoes, onions, peas, lentils, macaroni, noodles, and/or minced meat) in front of her Kebele house (a low-cost government rental property). Ramala and her family are quite simply the quintessence of the hard-knocked life of many households in Dire Dawa. Since the collapse of her husband’s business following the cessation of the once thriving contraband trade some thirteen years ago, she had to assume the role of being the sole breadwinner in her family.

“In the beginning, I was able to find some businesses like selling commodities and some body-care products, which I used to receive from a Somali woman at a very cheap price. But, the supply became inconsistent due to the unfavorable conditions put in place by the authorities,” Ramala remembers.

As a result, she was forced to start selling samosa and other oil-grilled fast foods at her doorstep eight years ago to sustain the lives of the seven members of her family. She arguably represents those hundreds of women selling samosa, boiled grain (locally named nifro) and other cheap foodstuff to generate income in the districts known as GandakoreKezira and Greek camp. When she remembers what she calls the good-old days, Ramala’s eyes get watery.

“You know I’m an uneducated woman and a mother who has got a family to feed. How can I understand that contraband trade is unlawful? All I knew was that I was earning a living,” Ramala pondered. “Even if it was illegal and undesirable, what other options do I have? Where is the option that is put in place? Tell me,” she asks. “Do you see anything available for us here?” she cried out.

For Remala remembering the conditions that her family has been in for the past eight years is a traumatizing ordeal.  Fulfilling almost all of the living necessities for her mentally unstable husband and her five children could indeed be revealed in more frustrating mood. “I don’t know. I would never imagine a plight more than this. But I’m praying to see the revival of the city,” she consoled herself.

For many reasons, the life of the city appeared to be intertwined with the rail system that once run through it and to Djibouti-that had massively changed the lives of the residents until it broke down a decade ago. Established as the Imperial Railway Company of Ethiopia, the Ethio-Djibouti Railways was considered to be a breathing apparatus for residents of the city. According to historians and elderly people of the city, many even came in and settled in the city because of the train that had been hopefully taken as a matchless income-generating means. The single track 781 km railway had a 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 3⁄8 in) gauge, most of it on Ethiopian territory; about 100 km in Djibouti.  There were also 187 bridges along the route, but only one tunnel at Gol du Harr, northeast of Dire Dawa. The Abandoned service that affected the lives of tens of thousands of residents is viewed as a major issue for the poverty and inactivity that is widespread in the city.

 “It had had a huge influence on the city’s entire business activity and hence its interruption resulted in a rapid decline in the social status of the residents of the city,” Tamerat said.

Hired by one of the biggest hotels in the city as shuttle driver, Tamerat was born, raised and got married in Dire Dawa. He says Dire Dawa is the only place he could ever live in. “In spite of those difficulties, I’ve never thought I could be relocated like many friends who left the city since this government assumed power,” he told The Reporter. According to him, the city is populated with old people (retirees), women and very young people; those in his age group could be rarely found these days, according to Tamirat.

In addition to the inactive state of the railway, poor governance along in the city to make it one of the least developed cities in the country has played a significant role in the impoverished livings status of the majority, Tamirat argues. “Look at the roads, the services and the institutions. Do you see any newly-built facility? Most are old and they give Dire Dawa a look which is old; it has become a city of old songs and tales,” he said.

True to form, despite a few new buildings, new hotels and businesses, Dire Dawa remains an old city that has never lived up to the title “chartered city”. For some, for many years, Dire Dawa stands out as the second largest city next to Addis Ababa. Yet, apparently, the city demonstrates massive urban poverty, scarcity of infrastructure and low economic activity unlike some of the emerging cities in the country.

Ahmed Bamheriz, a Yemenee businessman, is the one who is frustrated by the city which he knew since the time of Derg. “I don’t know why this city is not going forward like other cities such as Bahir Dar, Hawassa and even like the smaller ones such as Bishoftu,” he said. Headquartering his business in Djibouti, Ahmed has been to Dire Dawa many times, including the capital Addis Ababa and other places. He attests that only the streets, downtown Dire Dawa and the romantic trees of the town still retain their old beauty.

According to Belew Worku, an instructor at Dire Dawa University, the city and the rail system were just two sides of the same coin. Stating both the economic and political significance of the town, Belew argues that Dire Dawa’s recent shape is simply a portrayal of failure, particularly in comparison to its golden times—the railway era.

Emperor Menelik is known to have granted the permission to Alfred Ilg, a Swiss engineer, to construct a railroad connecting Djibouti with the White Nile through Harar and Entoto in 1884. This gave rise to the formation of the Compagnie Impériale des Chemins de fer d'Éthiopie. And Dire Dawa was chosen because of its sufficient water source that powers the steam engine, weather and more importantly for its halfway location between Djibouti and Addis Ababa, he stated. Shortly after the railway, Dire Dawa’s entire business showed a streak boom in industry, small-scale manufacturing, hotels, cafes and other businesses emerged to light up the eastern corner.

Contrary to the then revival in the fortunes of the railway, an enormous despondency is being observed with the residents. The growing frustration has been leading the youth, men and some women to give up and sit down for their accustomed khat, a mild green stimulant commonly chewed by young men across the country. “What can I do? no job, no hope, no kid to care for so I’m a frustrated young man losing all the energy I have,” said Yared Eshetu, a 23-years-old resident approached by The Reporter at the Barber shop chewing Khat along with two other friends.

The Dire Dawa City Administration, located in a suburb where four star hotels, financial institutions and bars are close-packed, appears to be unaffected by the frustrations observed downtown. By the time The Reporter arrived to talk to officials the security personnel guarding the compound said that there was a lengthy meeting going on inside. However, mayor Asses Ziad, in his previous comment to The Reporteraddressing the decline of Dire Dawa stated that it is wrong to associate the city’s problems with the interruption of the railway system and the associated decline of contraband trade.

However, the mayor said that the end of contraband gave rise to residents paying taxes. According to him, six years ago the government was able to collect around less than a million birr and now it was able to collect 650 million birr.  He also discussed the recent developments like the emergence of more than 70 small and big manufacturing companies. There is also a water project that costs some 700 million birr. Other projects, including the construction of hospitals, recreational centers and parks, are also in the pipeline.

More importantly, the residents can see light at the end of the tunnel in the restarting of the railway system that recently marked its trial-run in carrying aid to the people affected by the drought. They are yearning for the reunification of their loved city and their iconic train.

Nevertheless, for residents like Ramala and Tamirat, the revival of Dire Dawa is yet a far cry. All they comprehend is that the city needs vibrancy, the residents need jobs and improved livelihoods.